It was an important day in the long march towards social media regulation yesterday, as Facebook’s Oversight Board upheld the company’s January 7th decision to suspend then US President Donald Trump from the platform, but added that the punishment did not necessarily fit the crime. Speaking at a Financial Times event later in the day, former UK Deputy Prime Minister and now Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications for Facebook, Nick Clegg, spoke about the implications of the Board’s findings, as well as the wider approach that Facebook is currently taking towards regulatory matters.
Initially setting to work in October 2020, the Facebook Oversight Board is an independent body that rules on content moderation decisions made by the platform. It yesterday made clear that the company was right in its January 7th decision to suspend the then-President Donald Trump from Facebook and Instagram, but also added that Facebook had violated its own rules by imposing a suspension that was ‘indefinite’.
If the blurring lines between politics and media were not self-evident enough from the subject matter of this case itself, former UK Deputy Prime Minister-turned-Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications for Facebook waded into proceedings just a few hours later, speaking at an FT Live event:
“We must now go away and figure out how we can update our wider approach, as well as specifically as regards Donald Trump. [The Oversight Board] have given us six months to do so, but hopefully we will be able to move considerably faster than that. Almost anything Facebook does in this space is going to leave someone unhappy. Politics is highly polarised at the moment, and Trump is a polarising figure. All we can do is to take this our cue from the Oversight Board and deliver a response grounded in clear and coherent policies.”
Of course, any kind of ruling made by a body of this nature independent or not, is likely to set precedents for future cases and parameters for wider policies. In describing the 20-strong committee, Wikipedia actually refers to it as ‘a body that makes consequential precedential content moderation decisions’. In other words as its law-heavy panel of experts would indicate, this is in a sense about building a regulatory framework from the ground up, based on live cases in the field.
Clegg says that “context matters” when it comes to monitoring and removing potentially harmful posts, particularly in instances such as Trump’s where the story to which they relate is in the wider public interest. He also acknowledges the need for private sector-led initiatives like the Oversight Committee – which was set-up by way of an irrevocable US $130 trust – until public sector policy can catch-up with technological advancement.
“I think regulation, transparency, accountability and scrutiny is exactly the order of the day – we’re all on a journey here aren’t we. All of these companies and these industries are very young. As I often say to people, the Federer era is longer than the Facebook era. There’s always a lag between the eruption and then possibly disruption by new technologies, and then regulation.”
A few bad Apples
What was also particularly interesting in the Clegg FT session – almost more from the pov of covering the media industry at large, as opposed to these specific issues within it – was how brazenly Innovation Editor, John Thornhill segued into the recent Facebook-Apple scuffle around digital advertising, and quite how forthcoming the former Deputy UK PM was in his response:
“The issue is not about choice. The argument here is that Apple has taken quite a high-minded, moralising tone in explaining why it’s doing this, but that disguises a pretty crude commercial calculation, which is that in presenting the prompt in the way they do they are in effect tarnishing a legitimate business model. And they’re doing so in favour of their busines model, which is basically walled gardens, from which in the form of the App Store they take a cut.”
As far as the Oversight Board decision on Trump goes, Facebook now has six months to get its house in order, although as Clegg says we would expect any further movement in this area to come sooner.