Facebook has created an oversight board that includes the former prime minister of Denmark — but how independent is it really?

Matthew Syed’s Sunday Times article led me to think this was a good case for appointment by random selection.

Facebook has long been one of the most powerful actors in the world. It can shut down the communication of presidents, censor information on a network that connects 2.8 billion monthly users, and spread fake news — inadvertently or otherwise — using algorithms that can shift the dynamics of democratic elections. But who controls Facebook?

This is a question that came into sharp focus last month when Donald Trump was shunted off the platform at much the same time that he was dropped from Twitter and YouTube. The companies cited violations of their terms of use and claimed that, as private institutions, they were not bound by First Amendment free speech obligations. Conservatives responded that it was intolerable that judgments on who could access the digital equivalent of the town square were determined by the woke sensibilities of a tiny group of West Coast billionaires.

The tension implicit in the role of vast social networks — they claim to be platforms when rebuked for the content hosted on their sites, but publishers when they wish to censor information — has long been unsustainable. This is what makes the most recent solution dreamt up by Mark Zuckerberg intriguing.

The concept is an oversight board: as many as 40 big hitters acting like a court of appeal, capable of overturning the company’s editorial decisions. “The board will be an advocate for our community,” Zuckerberg said.

In addition to [former Denmark PM] Thorning-Schmidt, the board includes Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of The Guardian, and John Samples, vice-president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. The group was selected by the board’s four founding members and Facebook.

“Basically our criteria was diversity,” Thorning-Schmidt said. “And that meant global diversity, ethnic, gender, political diversity.”

I didn’t recognise many of the names on the board so couldn’t help wondering whether they truly reflect diversity of political opinion or whether they reflect the diversity of acceptable opinion as determined by Facebook and founding members, who were themselves selected by the company. I also wondered about the board’s editorial independence. They are paid by a trust that is funded by Facebook.

What’s certain is that the board’s problems are likely to grow. The next judgments will include whether it was right to suspend Trump from the platform, which will instantly taint the board in the eyes of half of Americans. This is why the editorial decisions of a company whose business model hinges on collecting data on its users to sell to advertisers will be sustainable only when brought within the purview of democratic control.

The battle between Big Tech and big government is only just starting.

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