The outside group with the final say on whether Donald Trump can be reinstated on Facebook is expected to be given greater powers in the coming months to decide which content is allowed on the world’s largest social network, according to Thomas Hughes, administrative director of the so-called Oversight Board.
Speaking to Digital Bridge, POLITICO’s transatlantic tech newsletter, Hughes said the board is in talks with Facebook to receive more powers to review potentially harmful material that remains on the on the platform, as well as to adjudicate on accounts suspended for breaching the company’s community standards.
Currently, the Oversight Board can only review content that has already been taken down from Facebook, as well as when the company refers cases involving suspended accounts to the outside body.
“Facebook has clearly flagged that they intend to increase the board’s powers, and the board fully intends to take those powers,” said Hughes, adding that the changes will come “within the next few months.”
“They’ve flagged that this is coming, we’re actively building it,” he said. “There are multiple other types of pieces of content, like suspensions of accounts and things like that which are coming.”
Technical challenges — including ensuring privacy is protected when data is shared on Facebook posts still on the platform — need to be ironed out before the company can share such data with the outside group, according to the Oversight Board and Facebook.
Critics of the Oversight Board question its independence from Facebook because the company has provided $130 million for the body’s running costs. Others have raised doubts over why the board must negotiate with Facebook to receive greater powers to review content that remains on the platform.
“The rules for the Oversight Board mean they can’t recommend changes to Facebook’s terms and conditions,” said Damian Collins, a British lawmaker and long-time critic of the company’s handling of online content. “What we’re seeing is limited in scope.”
As administrative director, Hughes’ role includes day-to-day operations, and he does not sit on panels that rule on content. He insisted the group had demonstrated its independence in early decisions. So far, the body has ruled against Facebook in five out of six first cases.
“If the board says, ‘well, this particular type of content should be allowed,’ and Facebook disagrees, the board could then construct its selection committee to find every single piece of content of that nature and simply overturn all of the decisions that Facebook takes now,” he added.
A former British human rights and free-speech campaigner, Hughes had criticized the Oversight Board in his previous job as executive director of Article19, a campaigning group.
He declined to comment on the upcoming Trump case, which may be announced by late March. The Oversight Board has received thousands of outside comments on whether to reinstate the former U.S. president on Facebook. The social network removed Trump after his posts around the January 6 riots on Capitol Hill, and the case focuses on whether Trump, as a political leader, should be treated differently on other Facebook users when he posts online.
The board has “already gone out publicly and requested information” about the “applicable standard for political leaders” Hughes said, without reference specifically to the Trump’s case. “Existing in international human right standards is the acknowledgement that there are different types of public figures, and the panel that is looking at this case is going to take those into consideration,” he added.
Each of the group’s decisions only applies to specific content upon which it has ruled and will not set broader policies for how Facebook handles other digital material. Yet, Hughes said the body was trying to create a globally-relevant set of free speech standards that may be applied to reams of future content decisions.
Free speech and human rights campaigners have questioned if it’s possible to create a one-size-fit-all approach to online content when countries often have different cultural standards.
“I do think that they will start to create a clear picture of where the line lies, what the responsibilities are for corporate actors, how they should go about implementing that and what that means for them as companies,” Hughes said in reference to the board’s work. “That’s what the board is going to help answer and it’s going to do it piece by piece by building a picture that’s based on actual context.”
Despite the long shadow hanging over the group ahead of its decision on Trump, Hughes acknowledged the body’s future decisions would likely run up against some countries’ domestic rules about what is allowed online. Governments in Turkey, Vietnam and Russia have all passed laws hampering people’s ability to voice opinions online.
Without naming specific countries, Hughes said the board would likely soon challenge those limits, setting itself up against national governments on the right to determine what was permitted online.
“I foresee that we will come to the point in which the board overturns a piece of content which maybe runs contrary to a country’s national legislation, but which people feel is not compliant with international human rights standards,” he said. “That will be an interesting moment.”