Op-Ed: Facebook Oversight Board planning — Predicting needs ain’t easy

Posted Jun 28, 2019 by Paul Wallis
Facebook has been on the receiving end of a decade or so of complaints. Live streaming of the Christchurch shootings, online bullying, you name it; the new Facebook Oversight Board (FOB) has its work cut out to restore credibility.
Jacob Bøtter (CC BY 2.0)
The current stage of planning the FOB is a bit nebulous, understandably. The new body will include independent oversight, with Mark Zuckerberg’s blessing. Zuckerberg says that decisions should not be left solely to the company. (Altruistic as this sounds, this is also best practice, to avoid conflict of interest when it comes to complaints about issues in which Facebook has a financial stake.)
The most significant proposals for the FOB include:
• The FOB should be able to pick and choose content cases independently.
• No Facebook employees on the Board.
• The Board should have powers to influence Facebook’s content policies and presumably practices.
These are all obviously baseline policy and constitution considerations for the new Board. The current need is to accurately define its role and responsibilities. Fair enough. The basic idea is good.
However, there’s a lot more to be done in practical terms to make the Board effective and fully functional. There are also many good reasons for making sure that it is:
1. Facebook is a NASDAQ listed company: A lot of people invest in Facebook. These people, like the community, are naturally stakeholders in the various debacles. Their interests and voting rights can make a big difference, and so can institutional investors, many of whom can pull the plug on the stock price if they divest.
2. The misadventures of Facebook do have legal ramifications. A legally functional response mechanism is required. The FOB needs to have sufficient clout to address any issues presented to it, and oversight a meaningful, effective response to problems.
3. The FOB can be made part of the Facebook corporate rules/articles of association (the “constitutions” of companies) to give it serious traction in company policies and decisions. This is a complex, picky option, but you can see why having the Board as a working mechanism to make sure things are done properly might be a good idea. With status in company rules, there can be no getting around or ignoring its decisions. Stockholders can make sure it works and isn’t derailed.
The theory here is that the FOB can function as a “company court with constitutional corporate credentials”, and that the company is obliged to comply with its findings. That could work out very well, if experts are on the FOB who understand how to make policies work.
Facebook Oversight Board members and Board constitution
“This is awful” has never been a working method for managing anything, and the Board will need members who can find working solutions, not simply generate new policies with no comprehension of practical operational solutions.
The current situation isn’t workable, which is why it has never worked. Facebook has put a lot of effort into fixes, but let’s face it - Zuckerberg is right. The decisions and actions taken shouldn’t be the sole prerogative of the company. There are far too many easy outs and do-nothing options, as it is.
No corporate structure in history has ever been designed to manage the gigantic data loads and sheer range of issues Facebook experiences every second. A new, better option MUST be evolved, and this may well be the best way to create an effective response to all the problems.
Give them time to get it right
There is absolutely nothing simple about this option. It will take time to get the FOB working. New rules, new content issues, you name it; the Board will be very busy. The critical thing now is to make sure it CAN do its job.