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Facebook holds discussion at OU Law, receives community input for content oversight board

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A panel discussing the creation and implications of Facebook's oversight board at OU Law listens to a question from the moderator May 31.

The OU College of Law hosted a town hall event Friday where students and Norman residents provided input and suggestions for future Facebook policy decisions.

Almost 200 students and Normanites gathered in the Dick Bell Courtroom to hear an expert panel discussion and give their own insights on the potential creation of a “content oversight board” to help Facebook make content decisions according to its community guidelines. The oversight board would help decide which content is allowed on the platform.

Facebook released a draft charter before the event, which outlined the reasoning behind the oversight board’s creation and important questions for the community to consider.

“Every day, teams at Facebook make difficult decisions about what content should stay up and what should come down,” the charter said. “As our community has grown to more than two billion people, we have come to believe that Facebook should not make many of those decisions on its own.”

Prior to the Norman town hall, Facebook had held similar events worldwide — from Singapore and Kenya to New York City and Silicon Valley.

Brent Harris, director of governance and global affairs at Facebook and a Norman native, was one of two Facebook representatives at the event.

Harris said Facebook chose to have an event in Norman because the community would provide a perspective unique to those from the other, larger communities they have toured.

“A little bit of it is personal for me,” Harris said, “I’ve been struck as I’ve worked in D.C. … that I haven’t met a lot of people from Oklahoma, and it’s not the same way of seeing the world.”

Harris said acquiring the perspectives of as many different types of people as possible will help Facebook ensure the new board is as representative of the site’s users as possible.

“When was the last time a big tech company came out before it made all the decisions and heard from people in (a place like) Oklahoma?” Harris said.

Harris said as Facebook has toured and held these events, he has noticed “overwhelming support” from the communities agreeing the creation of the board is a step the company should take.

According to the charter, Facebook is creating the oversight board as an independent body to review Facebook’s “most challenging content decisions.” The board will have the power to overturn decisions Facebook makes, and Facebook will be required to accept the board’s decisions.

Harris said the board will be made as independent from Facebook as possible.

“One thing that’s important for us is that the board exercises independent judgment from Facebook,” Harris said.

To accomplish this, the board will not be composed of Facebook employees or anyone with a current or previous business affiliation with Facebook, Harris said, and Facebook is currently considering creating a separate trust that will pay the board members, enabling the board to operate without fear of retaliation.

Harris said Facebook may have no power to remove board members from their positions.

Harris said, currently, hundreds of names have been suggested to be on the board — comprised of roughly 40 members, according to the draft charter’s suggestion. According to the charter, members will likely be experts in fields like content, privacy, human rights, free expression, journalism and civil rights.

“The big qualification for this, what people most want, is the person who’s going to do this job best, who’s really going to review this content,” Harris said.

Robert Traynham, Facebook’s director of external affairs, said diversity will be crucial to ensure Facebook’s billions of users worldwide are represented — diversity in terms of nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation and other factors.

Harris said Facebook is aware of the issues cultural differences create in deciding what types of content are acceptable in different parts of the world, and while the oversight board will be “a single global body,” it is possible Facebook could implement smaller, regional panels to account for cultural divides.

To ensure communication between Facebook and the independent board, Harris said hiring has begun for new positions serving as liaisons between the two.

In the expert panel discussion, some experts agreed Facebook faces a question on how closely it must align its decisions with definitions of free speech and which content must be allowed on its platform due to the First Amendment and international free expression laws such as Article 19.

As Facebook has toured and received feedback from communities worldwide, Harris said the value of community input has become clear.

“There’s a real power in taking decisions for review,” Harris said. “What we’ve found is documenting and showing our work … and bringing it to an outside and diverse group of people is extremely impactful.”

The next and final town hall will be held in Germany, and Harris said the oversight board could be organized by the end of 2019.

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