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Meta’s Oversight Board, a model for the internet, is in limbo.

Last summer, the situation was dire for Meta’s Oversight Board, an experimental court of journalists, analysts and experts empowered to investigate Meta’s handling of controversial posts. Meta, its sole funder, had privately threatened to pull back support, pushing the board to cut costs or seek new sources of revenue.

The Oversight Board had tried for years to find new clients, approaching YouTube, TikTok, Pinterest and a host of other tech companies without much luck, according to half a dozen people familiar with the board’s efforts, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private organizational matters. Many cited Meta’s blemished reputation, noting that the board — launched with great fanfare in 2020 — had failed to improve the social media giant’s image.

Now, however, the Oversight Board may get a second chance. A sweeping European law, known as the Digital Services Act (DSA), requires tech companies to supply an independent group of experts to social media users seeking to appeal restrictions on their accounts. And the board is offering itself up for the task.

The board’s trust, an independent entity that oversees its finances, has funded a separate center to handle an influx of European user appeals, some of the people said. Thomas Hughes, the former Oversight Board administration director, will lead the new organization, which has applied to be an “Out-of-Court Dispute Settlement body” in Ireland.

Oversight Board Co-chair Helle Thorning-Schmidt said in a statement that “the Oversight Board Trust is exploring such initiatives, which would have to be fully independent of the Board.”


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Some employees and board members worry the focus on minor content moderation cases could jeopardize the group’s original mission to hold accountable a social network used by billions. In the board’s early days, reporters covered its decisions on hate speech, coronavirus misinformation and the ban of former president Donald Trump like Oval Office briefings. Some experts hailed the board — which could overrule even Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg — as a new model for social media governance.

Four years later, industry shifts have thrust the Oversight Board into limbo. Like many social media companies, Meta has weakened or cut many of the systems and staffers who once guarded the platform against potential harms, changing its focus to comply with the landmark European law. Some watchdogs criticize the board as a slow-moving organization with a hefty price tag, and question its relevance to the company, regulators and the general public.

The board, meanwhile, is trying to bolster its influence, appointing new leaders with a mandate to take on a bigger, more productive caseload with less money from Meta.

“In order for it to have power, Meta needs to believe that it is adding value,” said Evelyn Douek, an assistant professor of law at Stanford who has studied the board. “The board still has to prove its worth.”

Noah Feldman conceived of the Oversight Board while on a grueling 2018 bike ride through the hills of Old La Honda Road in the North Bay. His college classmate — Meta’s then-COO Sheryl Sandberg — had booked the Harvard law professor meetings with the company’s policy officials to learn more about the problems facing social media companies.

In Feldman’s opinion, many of the most contentious issues at the company fell outside its employees’ expertise.

What Facebook needs is a Supreme Court, he thought — a group of people from different fields who could use their experience to make tough calls. Feldman typed up a 1,200-word memo and sent it to Sandberg out of courtesy. Sandberg, initially skeptical, passed it to Zuckerberg.

In the absence of regulation, private companies were forced to determine the bounds of acceptable speech, Zuckerberg reasoned.

“This is a major experiment in governance,” Zuckerberg said in 2019. “If it’s successful, this board could become an important part of how online expression and communities work”

Meta put $130 million into an independent trust in 2019 for the board to use for the next six years. Three years later, Meta added another $150 million donation. It never specified how much funding it would provide in the future.

The Oversight Board’s decisions on whether to remove pieces of content are binding — outranking even Zuckerberg. Its recommendations on overall policies and rules are considered, but not automatically enforced. Cases are decided and written by a five-board-member panel and then sent to the whole board for a vote — a process that is supposed to take 90 days or less.

The group was controversial from the start. Some Meta critics, including NAACP President Derrick Johnson and…

Read More: Meta’s Oversight Board, a model for the internet, is in limbo.

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