The Mother of all Oversight Boards

Pressure on Facebook shows no sign of decrease. The first line of defense – “we’re just a tech company” – did not hold. The second line – “we will hire thousands of moderators” – also failed. The latest attempt – “oversight board” – is a step in the right direction but will not be enough. Here’s why:


Facebook accepting some degree of responsibility for the content is welcome. A generous interpretation of the oversight board could be a statement like “we think this is difficult and need some help”. Such an approach deserves some sympathy or at least the benefit of the doubt. Thorny issues of freedom of opinion clashing with hate speech. The climate movement and #metoo have benefitted from Facebook and other platforms, but so have white supremacists and Russian election intervention. To humbly ask for help is a good idea, but only if the request is honest.


This balancing act is nothing new. Facebook is not the first to face it. In fact, every new media form has gone through similar steps. The then new medium of radio is sometimes said to have helped the Nazi party to power in 1930’s Germany. Now regarded as pillars of democracy, newspapers were once called “gutter press” and the tabloid looking for scandals rather than the truth is still an archetype. Video games have often been criticized for violent content. And so on. In that view, Facebook is in good company and if history is any guide, it will be held in better regard in the future. Except that does not happen on its own. One could get the impression that it is the world that adjusts to the new medium and learns to accept it. But the reality is that the new medium needs to make necessary changes to earn trust.


The way those examples have gained trust is by putting in place systems that help the audience and check the content. Broadcast media is regulated through law and permissions, many countries have public service organisations and oversight boards or authorities. Newspapers follow similar patterns. The journalist profession requires years of education, there are organisations for professional development, forums for discussing press ethics, special media covering media – the ethos is that difficult publishing decisions are well-served by being discussed by others. Academics do research on press and media ethics. And so on, a very advanced and professional system and, importantly, a learning system that evolves as the world changes. Same for video games, the industry keeps in close touch with researchers, organisations and authorities. Europe has PEGI – a co-regulation system funded by the industry, run by an independent organization and governed by an advisory board appointed by the member states (experts in teaching, child psychology, media, medicine, sociology and many more). Similar systems exist in other parts of the world. The point is that these media forms did not say “we’re just a tech company”, they faced the criticism and made a system to do better.


Self-regulation or co-regulation systems can be the way forward also for the internet platforms. There are some criteria that need to be met:

  • Independence – self/co-regulation should be independent of individual companies
  • Transparence – the rules and rulings should be available to anyone
  • Legal certainty – both parties can appeal a ruling to some form of appeals board
  • Rest on actual regulation – the self/co-regulation system falls back on law
  • Avoid conflict of interest – the delegates in the system should not be appointed directly by the companies they regulate

Done right, self/co-regulation tries more cases, moves faster and achieves better results than courts and authorities can on their own. (Co-regulation is when the state is represented in some way, self-regulation is independent of the state.)

Now, this is your homework: check the Facebook Oversight Board against the bullets above. If it ticks all boxes, good news for Facebook and digital citizens anywhere. If it ticks only a few boxes, Facebook needs to do more work to cope with fair criticism and avoid government intervention. (Send your answers to


Fun fact: besides the three liberal law professors in the oversight board core, the surprise guest is Danish former prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. When she ran Denmark, her Minister of Economy and Interior was Margrethe Vestager. Yes, the same Vestager, European Commission Vice President and digital watchdog. What a fortunate coincidence for Facebook!

Netopia will follow the oversight board’s work with great anticipation. Will it stop or reduce hate speech and troll factories? Fake news? Election meddling? Genocide propaganda? Privacy breachs? Terrorist content? Abuse of dominant position? Restrictions to free speech? Content theft? Bring back “sexy” emojis? That would be terrific, thanks!