Facebook whistleblower to meet with oversight board: What you need to know – CNET

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Former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen testified before Congress in early October.

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen will meet with the social network’s oversight board, the body established to review the company’s content moderation decisions and practices.

Haugen has rocketed into public awareness since revealing herself as the person behind a massive leak of documents that were used in a Wall Street Journal series to examine how much the social network knows about the effect of its platform on users. In subsequent testimony to the US Senate in early October, Haugen alleged Facebook’s products “harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.” She’s also expected to appear before a committee at the UK Parliament.

On Oct. 11, the oversight board said it too wanted to speak with the former product manager. In particular, the board said it wanted to focus on the company’s Cross Check program, which exempts millions of high-profile users, such as celebrities and politicians, from the platform’s community standards, an apparent contradiction of public statements that its rules apply to everyone. The board had previously said it was looking into Cross Check after The Journal’s report.

“We are currently looking into whether Facebook has been fully forthcoming in its responses on its ‘cross-check’ system and will share our analysis in our first release of quarterly transparency reports later this month,” the board said. “Facebook has also said it will ask the Board to review how cross-check can be improved and to offer recommendations.”

Read more: Here’s how you can submit an appeal to Facebook’s oversight board.

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Critics of Facebook, which was used by Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election, say it isn’t taking its responsibility seriously enough and don’t think the oversight board moves fast enough or goes far enough. A group of vocal critics has set up a shadow organization, which it calls the Real Facebook Oversight Board.

Here’s what you need to know about Facebook’s oversight board:

What are the board’s responsibilities?

Let’s get something straight: The oversight board doesn’t do the same job as content moderators, who make decisions on whether individual posts to Facebook comply with the social network’s rules. The board exists to support the “right to free expression” of Facebook’s 2.85 billion users.  

The board functions a lot like a court, which isn’t surprising given that a Harvard law professor came up with the idea. Users who believe content moderators have removed their posts improperly can appeal to the board for a second opinion. If the board sides with the user, Facebook must restore the post. Facebook can also refer cases to the board. 

The oversight board can also make suggestions for changes to Facebook’s policies. Over time, those recommendations could affect what users are allowed to post, which could make content moderation easier. 

Why does Facebook want an oversight board? 

Facebook gets criticized by just about everybody for just about every decision it makes. Conservatives say the company, and the rest of Silicon Valley, are biased against their views. They point to bans of right-wing provocateurs Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos to support their case. 

The social network doesn’t get much love from progressives, either. They complain Facebook has become a toxic swamp of racist, sexist and misleading speech. Some progressive groups underlined their concerns last summer by calling on companies to avoid advertising on Facebook and publicizing the boycott with the hashtag #StopHateForProfit.

The oversight board can help Facebook deal with those complaints while lending credibility to the social network’s community standards, a code of conduct that prohibits hate speech, child nudity and a host of other offensive content. By letting an independent board guide decisions about this content, Facebook hopes it’ll develop a more consistent application of its rules, which in the past have generated complaints for appearing arbitrary. 

One example: Facebook’s 2016 removal of an iconic Vietnam War photo that shows a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack. The company defended the removal, saying the Pulitzer Prize winning image violated its rules on child nudity. It reversed its decision shortly afterward as global criticism mounted. 

Why isn’t the board part of Facebook? 

It’s no secret that Facebook has a trust problem. Regulators, politicians and the public all question whether the decisions the company makes serve its users or itself. Making the board independent of Facebook should, the company reckons, give people confidence that its decisions are being made on the merits of the situation, not on the basis of the company’s interests. 

Who has Facebook chosen to be on this board?

Last year, Facebook named the first 20 members of the board, a lineup that includes former judges and current lawyers, as well as professors and journalists. It also includes a former prime minister and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The board could eventually be expanded to 40 people. The members have lived in nearly 30 countries and speak almost as many languages. About a quarter come from the US and Canada.

Serving on the board is a part-time job, with members paid through a multimillion-dollar trust. Board members will serve a three-year term. The board will have the power to select future members. It’ll hear cases in panels of five members chosen at random. 

Trump and conservatives were unhappy with the makeup of the board, which they saw as too liberal, according to The New Yorker. The former president even called Zuckerberg to express this sentiment, but Facebook didn’t change the board members.

Is the board really independent if Facebook is paying it?

If you’re skeptical, we hear you. Facebook doesn’t have a great reputation for transparency.

That said, the charter establishing the board provides details of the efforts Facebook is taking to ensure the board’s independence. For example, the board isn’t a subsidiary of Facebook; it’s a separate entity with its own headquarters and staff. It maintains its own website (in 18 languages, if you count US and UK English separately) and its own Twitter account.

Still, when it comes to money, the board is indirectly funded by Facebook through a trust. Facebook is funding the trust to the tune of $130 million, which it estimates will cover years of expenses. 

Facebook says it’ll abide by the board’s decisions even in cases when it disagrees with a judgment. (The social network says the only exceptions would be decisions that would force it to violate the law, an unlikely occurrence given the legal background of many board members.)

The board will also try to keep Facebook accountable, publishing an annual report that’ll include a review of Facebook’s actions as a result of its decisions. 

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