yesIssie LapowskyNone
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

Power

Facebook tells us how its new board will oversee Mark Zuckerberg

Deciding what its members should do, ensuring diversity, learning to accept its decisions — none of it was straightforward, Facebook's executives say.

Mark Zuckerberg

The new board's structure means Mark Zuckerberg couldn't just shut it down if he didn't like its decisions.

Photo: Courtesy of Facebook

Following a global search more than a year in the making, on Wednesday, Facebook unveiled the first 20 members of its long-awaited oversight board, which will act as a sort of Supreme Court for Facebook's content decisions. The cohort was meticulously selected with an eye toward representing a cross-section of world cultures — in an attempt to answer Facebook's critics on all sides.

The members, including four co-chairs, have collectively lived in 27 countries and speak 29 languages among them. They criss-cross the ideological spectrum, from former U.S. Federal Circuit Court Judge Michael McConnell, who was once considered by President George W. Bush for the actual Supreme Court, to Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former social-democrat prime minister of Denmark. McConnell and Schmidt will co-chair the board, along with Catalina Botero Marino, who is a former special rapporteur on freedom of expression for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and Jamal Greene, a professor of law at Columbia Law School who focuses on constitutional law and the First Amendment.

In a call with reporters Wednesday, the board's co-chairs acknowledged the sheer difficulty — if not impossibility — of the task ahead of them. "We're going to be having to select just a few flowers, or maybe they're weeds, from a field of possibilities," McConnell said of the case-selection process. "No one will be satisfied with the decisions that the oversight board makes in every case. We won't please everyone."

Facebook sourced the board chairs through a global consultation process and established an independent legal trust to fund the board going forward. The company then worked with the chairs to select the first group of members. Some of them are noted Facebook critics themselves.

"Social media can spread speech that is hateful, deceitful and harmful. And until now, some of the most difficult decisions around content have been made by Facebook, and you could say, ultimately, by Mark Zuckerberg," Schmidt said on the call. "That's why I feel that this is a huge step for the global community that Facebook has decided to change that."

Right now, a quarter of the members are from the United States, but it will be up to the board to appoint the remaining 20. The board will also have the freedom to decide which cases to take up, based both on recommendations from Facebook and user appeals. Whatever decision the board makes about whether Facebook should reinstate a given post or not will be binding.

This grand experiment in oversight on the internet is slated to begin this fall, and it will undoubtedly draw yet more scrutiny to the tech giant.

Protocol spoke with the Facebook team that led the search for the board about who they picked, the impossible task of choosing a 40-person cohort that truly represents the world, and how the board might some day spawn similar oversight bodies for tech companies across the internet.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Walk me through the last few months trying to build the board's founding membership team.

Brent Harris (director of governance and strategic initiatives): When we started on this journey and said Facebook can't make all these decisions on its own, we also felt like we didn't have all the answers on how to build this board. We engaged in this consultation process and gathered feedback and heard from stakeholders and critics on what they thought we should build. That resulted in the charter and the bylaws. Part of that consultation has also been an opportunity for us to see what the job is and learn what it is like to take these hard decisions to these people and ask them to deliberate in a panel. That's been an opportunity for us to both learn the job and see hundreds of people in action and taking this on.

Fariba Yassaee (manager of governance and strategic initiatives): It was like putting together pieces of a puzzle. We have so many qualified candidates, who had been sourced and who had been vetted and who had been interviewed. People from around the world who were highly qualified to serve. At the end of the day, we were trying to achieve as much diversity for a small group, a small cohort, as we could for this first round.

Tell me about the makeup of the team.

Yassaee: We've got five people from the U.S., two of them from Latin America, four from Europe, two from sub-Saharan Africa, two from Middle East North Africa, two from Central South Asia, and three from Asia Pacific Oceania. Collectively the members have lived in over 27 countries. They speak at least 29 languages among them. All of them have expertise or experience advocating for human rights. Eight work in non profits. Two of them have previously served as special rapporteurs in key areas of interest. Three of them are former judges of national or international courts. Six of them are current or former full-time journalists. Two of them are well-versed in computer programming languages. Two are members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. One is a Nobel Peace prize winner. One led a newspaper to win its first Pulitzer Prize.

I'm sure being on the board is an honor for a lot of people. But it's also so much pressure. You know more than anyone the kind of personal attacks that Facebook employees can face about content decisions. I wonder whether you felt any resistance from people who don't want to be on the hook for those decisions?

Yassaee: In all honesty, no. We have people on this board who have been quite critical of Facebook and quite critical of social media. There are many of them, and that will continue. At least from all the members I spoke to, there was initially, perhaps, some curiosity around the intent. As they consulted with us over the last several months and years, they came to see this was a legitimate institution we were looking to stand up and be separate from Facebook and answer to users and not the company.

You obviously want the board to be diverse, but you could never build a board that really represents all of the cultures and viewpoints that exist on Facebook. So what did you prioritize?

Yassaee: A lot of it came to us throughout the consultation process. Within the U.S., most people commented on needing to see a diversity of political and social viewpoints. Within sub-Saharan Africa, they pointed out they wanted to see a francophone member; they pointed out they wanted to see the four regions within sub-Saharan Africa covered. Throughout the Middle East, there was talk of Israel, Palestine, Gulf countries.

We got a lot of input along the lines of professions. Since this is something people in the beginning were talking about as a court, although it's not a court there was a conversation around how many members should be lawyers? How many should be journalists? We wanted to incorporate that professional diversity. It was also key we had gender balance on this board. We also heard we wanted to see linguistic diversity. Latin America is not just Spanish. It was important we had Portuguese represented as well.

Hopefully people will be pleased with what they see so far. But there's more work to be done.

What happens if the board's decision really fundamentally contradicts something that, say, Mark Zuckerberg feels strongly about? For instance, Facebook's response to COVID propaganda has been pretty firm, and Mark said that's because when you're dealing with a global pandemic, it's a lot more black and white than, say, politics. What if the board members don't see it that way?

Heather Moore (manager of governance and strategic initiatives): That's the reality of oversight. We have been working on this for a year and half, and as much as we've been consulting externally, we've been really working with the teams internally to gather and garner alignment on that point. This board may make decisions we fundamentally, strongly disagree with. That's why you see in the charter and the bylaws that the board has binding authority. We worked really extensively internally to get that commitment, and that's what we've codified.

The board does have to apply Facebook's community standards, and ultimately, its values, especially looking to human rights norms and standards. It has quite a task ahead of it. But given the profiles of individuals we've picked on the board and their geographic and intellectual diversity, I think we all feel pretty good about them making the final decision, irrespective of whether or not we disagree with it. Ultimately these are decisions for users and not for us as employees.

Who will make the decision to keep this going or not?

Yassaee: We made a commitment up front to $130 million. That is a commitment that will stay. But the trust will issue reports on a yearly basis, so we start the conversation early about putting more money on top of that $130 million, that will lead it on the path of endowment. Facebook can't make a decision to call the board off. They're a separate legal entity, and the trust allows for more than just Facebook to contribute funding.

Harris: That was conscious on our part in building the trust. It has been built in a way that it can go beyond Facebook and go to more parts of the industry.

In other words, it could be applied to other companies?

Harris: That is certainly a possibility. We've built it in a way where other companies can choose to join.

Yassaee: That's actually something we've heard during the consultations: that this should be an industry body, not a Facebook body. You never know where the board might take this in the future.

I'm sure your tech industry brethren just love the idea of Facebook setting up an oversight board for them. Have you heard from other companies that they're interested in being overseen by this?

Harris: We have seen companies participate and leaders within the industry participate in different parts of the consultation. They've come to talks we've held. They've watched this closely. I anticipate this is where the industry is headed. We're already seeing more stakeholders call for this, more experts call for this. I think regulators increasingly will call for the forms of oversight and transparency and user appeals we're building.

Can you say more about what other tech leaders have participated?

Harris: I don't think it would be appropriate for me to do so, but I don't think it's hard to imagine who has participated. We've had interest, phone calls, participation from almost every part of the industry, watching how this is being built, at times also sharing their own perspective and feedback about what they think we're doing right and what's potentially off and what makes them nervous.

Yassaee: It's not just the big tech companies, either. There are a lot of smaller tech companies out there who don't have the resourcing to make content and policy decisions the way some of the bigger ones do.

What will be the measures of whether this board is working?

Moore: A couple of the things the report will look to and speak to are: Is the board taking cases? Is the board issuing decisions? It's really about the operational pieces and functional pieces, not the subjective pieces. Are they continuing to source and search for new members and bringing them through the trustee confirmation process? It's really making sure the board is operating and nothing more.

What are some questions you're most eager for the board to answer?

Yassaee: I live in D.C., so politics, politics, politics. A lot that we've heard about throughout this process is: What is the board going to do on political ads? Is that really of importance to the entire board or just the Americans? I'm curious to see how that plays out.

People

Expensify CEO David Barrett: ‘Most CEOs are not bad people, they're just cowards’

"Remember that one time when we almost had civil war? What did you do about it?"

Expensify CEO David Barrett has thoughts on what it means for tech CEOs to claim they act apolitically.

Photo: Expensify

The Trump presidency ends tomorrow. It's a political change in which Expensify founder and CEO David Barrett played a brief, but explosive role.

Barrett became famous last fall — or infamous, depending on whom you ask — for sending an email to the fintech startup's clients, urging them to reject Trump and support President-elect Joe Biden.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

People

Amazon’s head of Alexa Trust on how Big Tech should talk about data

Anne Toth, Amazon's director of Alexa Trust, explains what it takes to get people to feel comfortable using your product — and why that is work worth doing.

Anne Toth, Amazon's director of Alexa Trust, has been working on tech privacy for decades.

Photo: Amazon

Anne Toth has had a long career in the tech industry, thinking about privacy and security at companies like Yahoo, Google and Slack, working with the World Economic Forum and advising companies around Silicon Valley.

Last August she took on a new job as the director of Alexa Trust, leading a big team tackling a big question: How do you make people feel good using a product like Alexa, which is designed to be deeply ingrained in their lives? "Alexa in your home is probably the closest sort of consumer experience or manifestation of AI in your life," she said. That comes with data questions, privacy questions, ethical questions and lots more.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

People

Poshmark made ecommerce social. Wall Street is on board.

"When we go social, we're not going back," says co-founder Tracy Sun.

Tracy Sun is Poshmark's co-founder and SVP of new markets.

Photo: Poshmark/Ken Jay

Investors were keen to buy into Poshmark's vision for the future of retail — one that is social, online and secondhand. The company's stock price more than doubled within a few minutes of its Nasdaq debut this morning, rising from $42 to $103.

Poshmark is anything but an overnight success. The California-based company, founded in 2011, has steadily attracted a community of 31.7 million active users to its marketplace for secondhand apparel, accessories, footwear, home and beauty products. In 2019, these users spent an average of 27 minutes per day on the platform, placing it in the same realm as some of the most popular social media services. This is likely why Poshmark points out in its S-1 that it isn't just an ecommerce platform, but a "social marketplace." Users can like, comment, share and follow other buyers and sellers on the platform.

Keep Reading Show less
Hirsh Chitkara
Hirsh Chitkara (@ChitkaraHirsh) is a researcher at Protocol, based out of New York City. Before joining Protocol, he worked for Business Insider Intelligence, where he wrote about Big Tech, telecoms, workplace privacy, smart cities, and geopolitics. He also worked on the Strategy & Analytics team at the Cleveland Indians.
People

Affirm CEO Max Levchin: ‘I see an ocean of opportunities’

The fintech startup's stock soared more than 90% in its IPO debut today.

It was a blockbuster debut for Affirm. The fintech startup's shares soared more than 90% when it went public on Wednesday.

The day itself began quietly for CEO Max Levchin: He kicked it off with a Zoom call with his kids, made a latte for his wife and joined a group chat with some high school friends, one of whom is recovering from COVID-19. "We were very happy to hear that he's doing well," he told Protocol shortly after his startup began trading on the Nasdaq Global Exchange.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Protocol | Enterprise

Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson explains how he decided to face off with Parler

Also, why he thinks the $3.2 billion purchase of Segment will help Twilio's customers help their customers and why he's OK with being reliant on AWS.

"I think in a society, words matter, actions matter," Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson said. "That's why companies have things like Terms of Service and acceptable use policies."

Photo: Twilio

Cloud computing companies were one of the few segments of society that enjoyed 2020. But even companies like Twilio, whose stock price tripled over the last 12 months, have had enough of 2021 already.

Last Friday, in the wake of the deadly attack on the Capitol, Twilio sent a letter to the right-wing social media app Parler notifying the company that it was violating Twilio's acceptable use policy for two of its authentication services. Parler decided to turn off Twilio's services rather than moderate calls for violence against elected officials on its app, which became a moot point after AWS cut Parler off from its own computing and storage services Sunday evening.

Keep Reading Show less
Tom Krazit

Tom Krazit ( @tomkrazit) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering cloud computing and enterprise technology out of the Pacific Northwest. He has written and edited stories about the technology industry for almost two decades for publications such as IDG, CNET, paidContent, and GeekWire. He served as executive editor of Gigaom and Structure, and most recently produced a leading cloud computing newsletter called Mostly Cloudy.

Latest Stories