In brief

  • Facebook has unveiled the members of its new oversight board.
  • The board will make decisions regarding what is or isn't acceptable content on Facebook and Instagram.
  • Critics such as crypto lawyer Preston Byrne say “platform governance means platform interference."

As the battle between free speech and censorship festers throughout the Internet, Facebook is taking steps to distribute its power to police content away from its own executives through the introduction of a new Oversight Board.

But the move is causing some to raise alarm bells, and could be a sign of the growing need for decentralized alternatives to the Web2 platforms of old.

Earlier this week, Facebook announced the first members of its new oversight board who are tasked with making decisions regarding content on Facebook and Instagram. The board will include former lawyers, judges, journalists, academics and public officials from around the world. 

The board’s co-chairs include former Denmark Prime Minister Hellle Thorning-Schmidt, US law professors Jamal Greene and Michael McConnell, and a former special rapporteur for freedom of expression at the Organization of American States, Catalina Botero Marino. 

In a shared op-ed for The New York Times, the co-chairs said “the company’s independent oversight body will focus on challenging content issues, such as hate speech and harassment.”

At first glance, the board may seem like a positive step for distributing decision-making power away from Facebook CEO Mark Zukerberg and his executives in Silicon Valley. 

But not so, said Preston Byrne, a lawyer and partner at Anderson Kill. In this context, “platform governance means platform interference,” said Bryne.

“The temptation to interfere with user content to either avert criticism or optimize engagement is considerable, and it's why these companies do it,” Byrne told Decrypt. “This panel is designed to give air cover to Facebook by reframing business decisions as moral or legal ones.”

Already, some members of the board have faced criticism for their perceived lack of impartiality. One board member, Stanford Law professor Pamela Karlan, was lambasted for crude remarks she made about Baron Trump, Donald Trump's son. Karlan was a vocal support of Trump’s impeachment during last year’s hearings. (Earlier today, the Trump campaign ripped Facebook’s new oversight board as “censorship police.”)

On Twitter, Byrne noted that Oversight Board Co-Chair Thorning-Schmidt, as the former prime minister of Denmark, may have a skewed sense of what should or shouldn’t be protected speech.

Similar concerns were shared by Josh Hawley, a constitutional lawyer and Republican US Senator from Missouri. “This is how powerful Facebook is, how much speech it controls, how much of our time [and] attention it claims: it now has a special censorship committee to decide what speech can stay [and] what should go,” he tweeted. “Facebook [is] basically making the case it should be broken up.”

Neither Thorning-Schmidt nor other members of Facebook’s new oversight board immediately responded to Decrypt’s request for comment.

While Facebook and similar platforms have the “absolute right under U.S. law to moderate content as they please,” according to Byrne, the concern is that most of the people making decisions “lack the professional training or the cultural familiarity to understand American free speech rules.” 

The result, he warned, will be adopting policies that appeal to the lowest-common denominator standard in order to comply with the various laws in jurisdictions in which Facebook operates.

“I expect to see Pakistani blasphemy rules being applied to Americans' content that is readable in Pakistan, or English malicious communications rules being applied to Americans' content that is readable in England,” he said.

Concerns regarding the threat of censorship on social media platforms have echoed throughout the crypto industry for some time, as builders and entrepreneurs explore the viability of decentralized alternatives.

Just last week, Tyler Winklevoss—founder of the Gemini crypto exchange and a venture capitalist known for his tussles with Facebook in the past—called for crypto entrepreneurs to start building the uncensorable social networks of the future. “A central party should not play referee,” Winklevoss told Decrypt at the time. 

”Rules should be made by a platform's community of creators and users, not a small group of executives cloistered in Silicon Valley,” he said.

The problem, however, is that the decentralized platforms that do currently exist have yet to penetrate the market and attract a meaningful number of users. The question of whether building it is enough to make them come remains very much an open one.

For now, it doesn’t appear that Facebook users will ever get much say in the platform’s governance. But with more than two billion users across the planet, it’s unclear how many would even want it if they had the chance.