Working from a list of hundreds of names suggested by insiders, the public, or self-nominated, the co-chairs and Facebook vetted resumes and conducted interviews. They were looking for accomplished experts who could work collegially and represent the breadth of the company’s multi-billion global users. The prospective board members had one big question: Would they be independent?
They were assured that indeed they would be. Thomas Hughes, the director of the trust that will manage the Oversight Board, is emphatic on that point. “I’m here for the board, not for Facebook. I did not take this job to represent Facebook in any way,” says Hughes who was previously head of Article 19, a UK human rights nonprofit. Many of the board members “have been critical publicly of Facebook, and we have made it very clear that they can continue to be critical of the company.”
As if to prove the point, Thorning-Schmidt, the former Danish prime minister, voiced concerns in a call with reporters. “There is a downside to social media, social media can spread speech that is hateful, deceitful, and harmful,” she said. “And until now, some of the most difficult decisions around content have been made by Facebook, and you could say ultimately by Mark Zuckerberg. That’s why I feel that this is a huge step for the global community that Facebook has decided to change that.”
Assembling the right mix of geography, language, expertise, gender, political orientation, and other factors was like aligning a Rubik’s Cube. The board is evenly split between men and women. They come from 27 countries, and collectively speak 29 languages. One factor, according to the co-chairs, was assuring there were political conservatives on the board. Besides McConnell, there is John Samples, a vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute. The expectation is that critics will analyze every member of the board as well as the overall makeup. (Since human rights activists generally shade liberal, getting representation on the left was less of a problem.) Oddly, considering Facebook’s bias toward engineering, only two are “well versed in computer programming languages,” according to a fact sheet. Code may be law, but in this case, policy is for lawyers.
Undoubtedly, critics will seize on the geographic imbalance among the members. Facebook divided the world into seven regions, choosing four members from Europe, two from sub-Saharan Africa, two from the Middle East and North Africa, two from Latin America, two from Central and South Asia, three from Asia Pacific, and five from the US, even though fewer than 10 percent of Facebook users are American. (India, the country with the largest Facebook population, got one board member. Stanford’s law school got two.) The reasoning offered for this is that Facebook is an American company, and that the US produces a large percentage of the appeals that may come before the board. I also was told that this anomaly might be mitigated when the next 20 are chosen. Still, any global perspective where almost half of the body is from the United States and Europe is deeply skewed. And it doesn’t help that half of the co-chairs come from the US.
One might get a hint of the direction of future decisions from the number of the members who have spent their careers focused on human rights, most notably Tawakkol Karman, the face of the Yemeni Arab Spring revolt and 2011 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Controversy is not an impediment, as the board includes Pamela Karlan, the Stanford law professor who testified before the House Judiciary Committee in favor of impeaching Donald Trump, and made an unfortunate joke about Trump’s son Barron. If backbone was a requirement, it might have helped Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, who published the controversial documents leaked by Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor.
Will the board eventually tackle Mark Zuckerberg’s stubborn insistence on distributing political ads regardless of whether candidates tell outright lies, as I predicted in an earlier story? “No doubt that’s an issue the board is going to take up,” Botero-Marino says.