Facebook Oversight Board gives Zuck a stern talking-to over transparency

The Board says Facebook has been uncooperative in answering questions and being clear in its policies.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at TechCrunch Disrupt 2013  in San Francisco, California, on Wed...
San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images/Hearst Newspapers/Getty Images

The Facebook Oversight Board released its first-ever transparency report today, nearly a year after the group first supposedly began watching over Facebook’s every move. The report covers the fourth quarter of 2020 and the first two quarters of 2021, focusing on appeals users have submitted to the Board and Facebook’s cooperation with the Board’s requests.

The report is immediately damning of how Facebook has treated its relationship with the Oversight Board. “Oversight Board demands more transparency from Facebook,” the headline reads — and that tone continues throughout.

The Board states that Facebook has been uncooperative in revealing details about its “cross-check” program, which the company uses to review content decisions relating to high-profile users. Facebook has also outright refused to answer some of the Board’s questions about specific appeals cases.

Overall, the Oversight Board is really hammering home the message that Facebook needs to be more transparent with the Board and the public. Too bad the group can’t actually force Mark Zuckerberg to do anything he doesn’t want to do.

Facebook isn’t cooperating — As far as the Oversight Board is concerned, the group has been working diligently to identify broad issues at Facebook. In some cases Facebook is cooperating with this effort; in others not so much.

As part of its investigations, the Board sent Facebook a list of 156 questions about decisions published through the end of June. Facebook did answer 130 of these, but it also declined to answer 14 questions and partially answered 12. The Board says, as an example, that Facebook declined to answer questions about users’ previous behaviors on the site, claiming it to be irrelevant to the investigation.

The Board says Facebook also dragged its feet in providing information about the “cross-check” system Facebook uses for cases involving high-profile figures like Donald Trump. Facebook has not been willing to provide full information on the program to the Board, and recommendations for Facebook to more clearly define the program’s rules have gone unanswered.

Lots of appeals — As part of its ongoing oversight, the board reviewed about 524,000 appeal cases from users who thought their blocked content should be reinstated. Of these appeals, the two most prominent types related to Facebook’s policies on hate speech, and bullying and harassment.

Facebook Oversight Board

The overwhelming pattern the Board sees transcends these categories, though. The problem, as the Board sees it, is that Facebook isn’t clear enough with users about the rules that govern its platform. This concern has been raised by many experts in the past and was most recently brought into Frances Haugen’s testimony about the company.

Will Zuck even care? — It’s evident from this 77-page report that the Oversight Board has been working hard to review appeals cases and weasel information out of Facebook’s C-suite. But the Board’s reach is limited to just this: being vocal about its concerns. The Board cannot enact any change of its own accord.

It’s Mark Zuckerberg who has the final say in these matters. That’s not likely to change any time soon. Zuckerberg is famously stubborn. Calls for transparency from the government, privacy experts, and the public are met with silence — or, at best, a patronizing attitude.

The Board can yell all it wants. Unless Zuck suddenly changes his mind (or his entire personality), it’s difficult to feel hopeful about the Board’s reach.