Facebook’s Oversight Board — a court of appeals of sorts for the social media giant — has gone live. Facebook and Instagram users whose content has been taken down can appeal to the Oversight Board (OSB) for independent review, it announced on Thursday. However, users cannot yet flag content that they want taken down from these platforms.

The OSB was first proposed in November 2018, after years of Facebook being subject to intense criticism for its lacklustre enforcement of its content moderation policy and community standards. The board, which will have 40 members, is structured an independent entity whose decisions will be binding on Facebook. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has claimed that the OSB’s decisions cannot be overruled by the company.

The OSB will be hearing appeals on content removal on both Facebook and Instagram. For the purposes of this article, we will refer to both of them as “Facebook”.

OSB will take appeals only for content removal, for now

For now, the board will allow users to only challenge content removals by Facebook. Users need to exhaust their appeals with Facebook before they can approach the OSB.  Users will not yet be able to flag content that they want removed. The board said this feature will be given to people in the coming months. 

Meanwhile, Facebook can refer cases to the board on an “ongoing basis”, including in emergency circumstances under an “Expedited Review Process”. Essentially, for regular users, the process of reaching the OSB stage could take several days. On the other hand, Facebook would be able to reach out to OSB readily during emergencies.

In a more detailed explanation of the appeals process published on its website, the board said not all content decisions by Facebook and Instagram are eligible for appeal. When a decision by Facebook is eligible, only then will users get a reference ID that can be used to submit an appeal to the OSB. It is not entirely clear how the eligibility of Facebook’s content decisions for appeal will be decided.

‘Won’t be able to hear every appeal’

It is unclear what kind of capacity the board will have with respect to processing the many appeals it will likely get. Catalina Botero-Marino, co-chair of the OSB, said as much in the official announcement: “We won’t be able to hear every appeal, but want our decisions to have the widest possible value, and will be prioritizing cases that have the potential to impact many users around the world, are of critical importance to public discourse, and raise questions about Facebook’s policies.”

Jamal Greene, co-chair of the OSB, said that the board will prioritise content that could lead to “urgent, real-world consequences”. He explained that the board only provides independent check to Facebook’s content moderation on “significant issues”, and doesn’t “remove Facebook’s responsibilities to act first and to act fast in emergencies”.

  • Cases will be assigned to five-member panel: OSB’s cases will be assigned to a five-member panels, wherein at least one member will belong to the region where the content is from; no member will make decisions alone. However, it should be noted that the OSB currently has only 20 members, who were announced in May this year. These members include Sudhir Krishnaswamy, vice chancellor of the National Law School of India University, the sole Indian member. It is unclear what the board will do if it is presented with a case from Myanmar, from where it doesn’t have a member. Would Krishnaswamy sit on the panel that hears this case?
  • OSB can suggest changes to Facebook’s community standards: The board said that cases will be decided upon using Facebook’s community standards, as well as “international human rights standards”. Additionally, it will be able to recommend changes to the community standards alongside its decisions.
  • Public comment sought on cases: Each case taken up by the OSB will have a public comment period, during which third parties can share their views with the Board. Case descriptions will be posted on the board website and comments will be sought before deliberations begin. These descriptions will take care to not have personally identifiable information of the users.
  • Cases will be processed within 90 days: The board said that it expects to reach case decisions and Facebook to act on them within 90 days.

Facebook won’t submit cases for review before US elections

The OSB will not play an active role in the upcoming US presidential elections on November 3. Ben Harris, Facebook’s director of government and global affairs, told reporters on Thursday that Facebook will not submit appeals for expedited review before November 3, reported The Verge.

Calls for oversight over Facebook in India

Facebook has been facing scrutiny in India after it was accused of political bias. the Wall Street Journal reported in August that Facebook’s public policy team had refused to taken down hate speech by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Ajit Mohan, Facebook India’s head, has since been questioned by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology. The OSB had then told MediaNama it wouldn’t “shy away” from hearing cases like this one. Such cases “are the type of highly challenging cases that the board expects to consider when we begin operating”, it had said.

In the aftermath of the WSJ article, the Delhi Assembly’s Peace and Harmony Committee, too, has held hearings to decide Facebook’s role in instigating the Delhi violence earlier this year.

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