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Troops march beside a military band.
Facebook’s Oversight Board recently upheld a decision to remove posts using ethnic slurs against Azerbaijanis. Here Azerbaijani troops march during a military parade in Baku in December 2020 in celebration of a peace deal with Armenia. (AP Photo)

Facebook is stepping in where governments won’t on free expression

We’ve known for quite some time that Facebook has a huge say over how online speech and expression are governed. Users have demanded accountability, and as a result the company created the Facebook Oversight Board to review and provide transparency about its content moderation decisions.

More recently, it also tried to suppress Australian news in response to proposed legislation that would charge internet companies for distributing news content, prompting outrage a call to #deletefacebook. Facebook ultimately backed down.

A collection of newspaper front pages about Facebook's Australia showdown.
Front pages of Australian newspapers are displayed in Sydney on Feb. 19, 2021, after Facebook blocked Australians from sharing news stories, escalating a fight with the government over whether powerful tech companies should have to pay news organizations for content. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

The creation of the Oversight Board is a clear indication that Facebook sees itself as a global governor of freedom of expression online. This goes to the heart of how governance is changing as a result of technological progress. Although Facebook’s Oversight Board appears to be a step towards more accountable decision-making, it also highlights the failure of governments to address freedom of expression in online content.

Media platforms constantly make judgments about appropriate speech, and Facebook’s global reach of 2.8 billion monthly users gives the board tremendous global influence.

Protecting human rights

The Oversight Board is to use “its independent judgment to support people’s right to free expression and ensure those rights are being adequately respected.” The explicit reference to human rights in its charter acknowledges that companies have a role in protecting and enforcing human rights.

This is consistent with efforts by the United Nations and other advocacy efforts to create standards on how businesses should be held accountable for human rights abuses. In light of Facebook’s entanglement in misinformation, scandals and election falsehoods, as well as genocide and incitement of violence, it seems particularly pertinent for the company.

Read more: Unliked: How Facebook is playing a part in the Rohingya genocide

It’s not a stretch to say that Facebook seeks to become a governor of human rights. The decisions made by Facebook through its content moderators and Oversight Board have significant implications for the exercise of worldwide freedom of expression and speech. Their decisions articulate principles of what is acceptable expression that far exceed the reach of any single state in the world.

Mark Zuckerberg appears on a screen
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears on a screen as he speaks remotely during a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill in October 2020. (Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP)

To date, we have assigned such decision-making powers to states, many of which are accountable to their citizens. Facebook, on the other hand, is unaccountable to citizens in nations around the world, and a single individual (Mark Zuckerberg) holds majority decision-making power at the company.

Transparency emphasized

Facebook took the step to create the Oversight Board after Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor, suggested the idea in 2018. In the board’s first set of decisions, it emphasized the need for transparency about Facebook removals.

Noah Feldman speaks at a hearing.
Noah Feldman testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on the constitutional grounds for the first impeachment of Donald Trump in December 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The Oversight Board will soon be deciding on the decision to remove former U.S. president Donald Trump from Facebook, a pivotal case. Its first set of decisions weren’t nearly as high profile, but made apparent the internal procedures Facebook uses to make its content decisions.

To date, there have been seven decisions. One removal that the Oversight Board overturned concerned the exposure of female nipples in a breast cancer awareness campaign on Instagram. This case highlighted the importance of human moderation, as the post had been removed by an algorithm (Facebook restored it when the Oversight Board selected the case to review).

In other cases, human moderators have had their decisions overturned. The Oversight Board also upheld Facebook’s decision to remove a dehumanizing ethnic slur against Azerbaijanis in the context of an active conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh disputed region.

However, the Oversight Board deals with only a small fraction of possible cases. Whether the board was created to enhance transparency and human rights or to heavily influence meaningful government intervention and regulation, it’s clear that private organizations are currently the only consistent governors of data and social media.

The TikTok logo.
TikTok could also play a role in global freedom of expression. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

Few entities can influence freedom of expression at the global level as pervasively as Facebook. Twitter is another candidate, although with 330 million monthly users, its influence pales in comparison. TikTok might be a bigger contender, projected to reach 1.2 billion monthly users this year, and WeChat has similar numbers. Taken together, it’s clear that while Facebook is the largest social media platform, these companies play an enormous role in online freedom of expression and speech.

Governments must step up

But Facebook and other social media companies do not have to engage in a transparent, publicly accountable process to make their decisions. However, Facebook claims that in its decision-making, it upholds the human right of freedom of expression. However, freedom of expression does not mean the same thing to everyone.

Freedom of speech often involves sifting out bad ideas from good. It is about protecting the right to say what you think, even when it’s a minority opinion. Maintaining the balance of harm versus freedom has always been tricky.

Facebook’s dominance in social media, however, is notable not because it’s a private company. Mass communication has been privatized, at least in the U.S., for a long time. Rather, Facebook’s insertion into the regulation of freedom of expression and its claim to support human rights is notable because these have traditionally been the territory of governments. While far from perfect, democracies provide citizens and other groups influence over the enforcement of human rights.

Facebook and other social media companies, however, have no such accountability to the public. Ensuring human rights needs to go beyond volunteerism by private companies. Perhaps with the Australia versus Facebook showdown, governments finally have an impetus to pay attention to the effects of technology companies on fundamental human rights.

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