Facebook Defers Trump Ban to Outside Oversight Board

In the aftermath of placing an indefinite ban on then-President Donald Trump, Facebook deferred a decision whether to continue that ban to an oversight board of 20 individuals from a range of positions and backgrounds. 

In this Oct. 25, 2019, file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the Paley Center in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

(CN) — As social media platforms continue to grapple with the issues of censorship and public safety amid a cloud of antitrust investigations, Facebook deferred to a recently established oversight board Thursday to decide whether to permanently ban Donald Trump from the platform. 

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms unilaterally decided to ban Trump after the Capitol Riot, citing the former president’s use of their services to beckon his supporters to Washington D.C. on Jan. 6. 

Conservatives and free speech advocates have condemned the ban and said it exemplifies the burgeoning effort of one political group to eliminate the speech of other groups with whom they disagree and the outsized role Silicon Valley plays in policing the public discourse. 

Proponents of the ban say Trump, particularly during his time as president, had other opportunities to make his views known by calling press conferences and submitting to interviews with the press, but chose instead to weaponize the use of the technology platforms to disseminate misinformation while avoiding accountability. 

Facebook said it deferred the matter to an oversight board of 20 individuals, including a former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, human rights advocates, law professors, digital rights advocates and former politicians. The company expects a decision shortly. 

“Given its significance, we think it is important for the board to review it and reach an independent judgment on whether it should be upheld,” said Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP of External Affairs, in a blog post. “While we await the board’s decision, Mr. Trump’s access will remain suspended indefinitely.”

The company, which will soon expand the membership of the oversight board to 40, said it will also solicit recommendations from the board regarding how to proceed with suspensions when the subject is a political leader. 

“Our decision to suspend then-President Trump’s access was taken in extraordinary circumstances: a U.S. president actively fomenting a violent insurrection designed to thwart the peaceful transition of power; five people killed; legislators fleeing the seat of democracy,” Clegg said. “This has never happened before — and we hope it will never happen again.”

Tuesday’s deferral is part of a broader reckoning within the social media sphere. Twitter, in contrast to Facebook, permanently banned Trump from its platform after the Capitol Riot, with CEO Jack Dorsey saying the threats to public safety were such that allowing Trump to continue to post was “an extraordinary and untenable circumstance.”

“Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all,” he said in a thread posted on Twitter on Jan. 13. 

Trump has no claims to a First Amendment case, as there is no right to use the platforms provided by Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others. Many pundits have made the case that a government official forcing private companies to publish the speech of officials would in fact violate the First Amendment rights of the private companies themselves. 

But free speech advocates argue banning Trump sets a dangerous precedent and is a sign that Silicon Valley technology companies wield enormous power and prompts questions about who is and should control the public discourse. 

“We have taken the view that in open democracies people have a right to hear what their politicians are saying — the good, the bad and the ugly — so that they can be held to account,” Clegg said Thursday. “But it has never meant that politicians can say whatever they like. They remain subject to our policies banning the use of our platform to incite violence.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly asked lawmakers for help in regulating his company, saying in the absence of a clear regulatory environment the company is left to adjudicate these matters on its own. 

Clegg reiterated this position again on Thursday. 

“It would be better if these decisions were made according to frameworks agreed by democratically accountable lawmakers,” he said. “But in the absence of such laws, there are decisions that we cannot duck.”

Tawakkol Karman, a Nobel Prize Laureate and journalist; Michael McConnell, a Stanford professor of law; Helle Thorning-Schmidt, former prime minister of Denmark; and Julie Owono, a human rights and internet rights advocate, are some of the members who comprise the board.

Facebook says the decision will be available on the oversight board’s website when it is issued. 

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