Facebook 'Supreme Court' names human rights expert to lead oversight board

Content moderation initiative criticised for limitations of its reach

Anthony Cuthbertson
Wednesday 29 January 2020 12:17

Facebook has announced further details about its new oversight board, naming human rights activist Thomas Hughes as its head.

The technology giant recommended rules on Tuesday for how its $130 million Supreme Court will operate, with a further 40 members set to be announced over the coming months.

It comes in response to criticism over how Facebook handles problematic content on its platforms, however it has already been criticised for a lack of reach.

The board will not be able to review content moderation cases on some of the firm’s most popular apps, including Messenger and WhatsApp.

Brent Harris, Facebook’s head of governance and global affairs, said the company had narrowed choices for board members down to “a few dozen people” but no formal offers had been made. He said Facebook hoped the board, which will also be able to recommend policy changes, will start hearing cases this summer.

Facebook is under scrutiny ahead of the US presidential elections in November, after US intelligence agencies said that social media platforms were used in a Russian cyber-influence campaign aimed at interfering in the 2016 US election - a claim Moscow has denied.

In December, Facebook pledged $130 million to fund the board for about six years.

The board’s cases can be referred either by Facebook or by a user who has exhausted the appeals process.

The proposed bylaws give a 90-day period for the board to make a decision and Facebook to act on it. For cases with “urgent real-world consequences,” there will a 30-day expedited review.

Initially, Facebook said users will only be able to appeal to the board when their content has been removed, though in future it wants the board to also handle cases where content was left up.

Evelyn Douek, a doctoral student at Harvard Law School who studies online speech legislation, told Reuters she was disappointed with this limitation.

“A lot of the really controversial cases in the past few years have been not take-downs but leave-up decisions, things like the Nancy Pelosi video, hate speech in Myanmar,” said Douek. “And at the moment those aren’t in scope for the board to review them unless Facebook itself refers them to the board.”

Facebook, which has recently come under fire over its decision not to fact-check politicians’ ads, also said that the types of content that the board can review will later increase to include ads, Groups and Pages.

Mr Hughes, who previously worked as the executive director at the non-profit human rights organisation Article 19, said: “The job aligns with what I’ve been doing over the last couple of decades which is promoting the rights of users and freedom of expression.”

Additional reporting by agencies

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