Facebook names first members of oversight board that can overrule Zuckerberg

By Elizabeth Culliford

(Reuters) – Facebook Inc’s new content oversight board will include a former prime minister, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and several constitutional law experts and rights advocates among its first 20 members, the company announced on Wednesday.

The independent board, which some have dubbed Facebook’s “Supreme Court,” will be able to overturn decisions by the company and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg on whether individual pieces of content should be allowed on Facebook and Instagram.

Facebook has long faced criticism for high-profile content moderation issues. They range from temporarily removing a famous Vietnam-era war photo of a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack, to failing to combat hate speech in Myanmar against the Rohingya and other Muslims.

The oversight board will focus on a small slice of challenging content issues including hate speech and harassment and people’s safety.

Facebook said the board’s members have lived in 27 countries and speak at least 29 languages, though a quarter of the group and two of the four co-chairs are from the United States, where the company is headquartered.

The co-chairs, who selected the other members jointly with Facebook, are former U.S. federal circuit judge and religious freedom expert Michael McConnell, constitutional law expert Jamal Greene, Colombian attorney Catalina Botero-Marino and former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

Among the initial cohort are: former European Court of Human Rights judge András Sajó, Internet Sans Frontières Executive Director Julie Owono, Yemeni activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman, former editor-in-chief of the Guardian Alan Rusbridger, and Pakistani digital rights advocate Nighat Dad.

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s head of global affairs, told Reuters in a Skype interview the board’s composition was important but that its credibility would be earned over time.

“I don’t expect people to say, ‘Oh hallelujah, these are great people, this is going to be a great success’ – there’s no reason anyone should believe that this is going to be a great success until it really starts hearing difficult cases in the months and indeed years to come,” he said.

The board will start work immediately and Clegg said it would begin hearing cases this summer.

The board, which will grow to about 40 members and which Facebook has pledged $130 million to fund for at least six years, will make public, binding decisions on controversial cases where users have exhausted Facebook’s usual appeals process.

The company can also refer significant decisions to the board, including on ads or on Facebook groups. The board can make policy recommendations to Facebook based on case decisions, to which the company will publicly respond.

Initially, the board will focus on cases where content was removed and Facebook expects it to take on only “dozens” of cases to start, a small percentage of the thousands it expects will be brought to the board.

“We are not the internet police, don’t think of us as sort of a fast-action group that’s going to swoop in and deal with rapidly moving problems,” co-chair McConnell said on a conference call.

The board’s case decisions must be made and implemented within 90 days, though Facebook can ask for a 30-day review for exceptional cases.

“We’re not working for Facebook, we’re trying to pressure Facebook to improve its policies and its processes to better respect human rights. That’s the job,” board member and internet governance researcher Nicolas Suzor told Reuters. “I’m not so naive that I think that that’s going to be a very easy job.”

He said board members had differing views on freedom of expression and when it can legitimately be curtailed.

John Samples, vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, has praised Facebook’s decision not to remove a doctored video of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Sajó has cautioned against allowing the “offended” to have too much influence in the debate around online expression.

Some free speech and internet governance experts told Reuters they thought the board’s first members were a diverse, impressive group, though some were concerned it was too heavy on U.S. members. Facebook said one reason for that was that some of its hardest decisions or appeals in recent years had begun in America.

“I don’t feel like they made any daring choices,” said Jillian C. York, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s director of international freedom of expression.

Jes Kaliebe Petersen, CEO of Myanmar tech-focused civil society organization Phandeeyar, said he hoped the board would apply more “depth” to moderation issues, compared with Facebook’s universal set of community standards.

David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, said the board’s efficacy would be shown when it started hearing cases.

“The big question,” he said, “will be, are they taking questions that might result in decisions, or judgments as this is a court, that go against Facebook’s business interests?”

(Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford in Birmingham, England; Editing by Tom Brown and Matthew Lewis)

Zuckerberg apologizes for Facebook mistakes with user data, vows curbs

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the Alumni Exercises following the 366th Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., May 25, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Sny

By David Ingram

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Facebook Inc Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg apologized on Wednesday for mistakes his company made in how it handled data belonging to 50 million of its users, and promised tougher steps to restrict developers’ access to such information.

The world’s largest social media network is facing growing government scrutiny in Europe and the United States. This follows allegations by a whistleblower that British political consultancy Cambridge Analytica improperly accessed users’ information to build profiles on American voters that were later used to help elect U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016.

“This was a major breach of trust. I’m really sorry this happened. We have a basic responsibility to protect people’s data,” Zuckerberg told CNN, breaking a public silence since the scandal erupted at the weekend.

Zuckerberg said in a post on Facebook the company “made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it.”

He said the social network planned to conduct an investigation of thousands of apps that have used Facebook’s platform, restrict developer access to data, and give members a tool that lets them disable access to their Facebook data more easily.

His plans did not represent a big reduction of advertisers’ ability to use Facebook data, which is the company’s lifeblood.

European governments expressed dissatisfaction with Facebook’s response and said the scandal showed the need for strong regulation.

“It shouldn’t be for a company to decide what is the appropriate balance between privacy and innovation and use of data. Those rules should be set by society as a whole and so by parliament,” British minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Matt Hancock, told BBC Radio. “The big tech companies need to abide by the law and we’re strengthening the law.”

Germany’s justice minister Katarina Barley demanded that Facebook executives explain to her whether the site’s 30 million German users had been affected.

Zuckerberg said he was open to additional government regulation and happy to testify before the U.S. Congress if he was the right person.

“I’m not sure we shouldn’t be regulated,” he told CNN. “I actually think the question is more what is the right regulation rather than yes or no, should it be regulated? … People should know who is buying the ads that they see on Facebook.”

Zuckerberg said Facebook was committed to stopping interference in the U.S. midterm election in November and elections in India and Brazil.

INVESTOR FEARS

Facebook shares fell 1.5 percent in premarket trading on Thursday as the apology failed to quell Wall Street nerves.

The company has lost nearly $46 billion of its stock market value over the past three days on investors’ fears that any failure by big tech firms to protect personal data could deter advertisers and users and invite tougher regulation.

Zuckerberg told the New York Times in an interview published on Wednesday he had not seen a “meaningful number of people” deleting their accounts over the scandal.

Facebook representatives met U.S. congressional staff on Wednesday and planned to continue meetings on Capitol Hill on Thursday. Facebook was unable to answer many questions, two aides who attended the briefing said.

Zuckerberg told the website Recode that fixes to protect users’ data would cost “many millions of dollars.”

The whistleblower who launched the scandal, Christopher Wylie, formerly of Cambridge Analytica, said on Twitter he had accepted invitations to testify before U.S. and UK lawmakers.

‘SCAPEGOAT’

On Tuesday, the board of Cambridge Analytica suspended its Chief Executive Alexander Nix, who was caught in a secret recording boasting that his company played a decisive role in Trump’s victory.

Psychologist Aleksandr Kogan, who provided the data, dismissed on Wednesday Cambridge Analytica’s assertions that the information was “incredibly accurate”.

Kogan, who gathered the data by running a survey app on Facebook, also said he was being made a scapegoat by the social media firm and Cambridge Analytica. Both companies have blamed Kogan for alleged data misuse.

About 300,000 Facebook users responded to Kogan’s quiz, but that gave the researcher access to those people’s Facebook friends as well, who had not agreed to share information, producing details on 50 million users.

Facebook has said it subsequently made changes that prevent people from sharing data about friends and maintains that no breach occurred because the original users gave permission. Critics say that it essentially was a breach because data of unsuspecting friends was taken.

Analysts say the incident may reduce user engagement with Facebook, lessening its clout with advertisers. Three Wall Street brokerages cut their price targets.

(Reporting by David Ingram; Additional reporting by Dustin Volz and David Shepardson in Washington and Kate Holton in London; Writing by Susan Thomas; Editing by Bill Rigby, Lisa Shumaker, Paul Tait and David Stamp)

Facebook to emphasize friends, not news, in series of changes

Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks on stage during the annual Facebook F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., April 18, 2017.

By David Ingram and Paul Sandle

SAN FRANCISCO/LONDON (Reuters) – Facebook Inc on Thursday began to change the way it filters posts and videos on its centerpiece News Feed, the start of what Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said would be a series of changes in the design of the world’s largest social network.

Zuckerberg, in a sweeping post on Facebook, said the company would change the filter for the News Feed to prioritize what friends and family share, while reducing the amount of non-advertising content from publishers and brands.

Facebook, which owns four of the world’s most popular smartphone apps including Instagram, has for years prioritized material that its complex computer algorithms think people will engage with through comments, “likes” or other ways of showing interest.

Zuckerberg, the company’s 33-year-old co-founder, said that would no longer be the goal.

“I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions,” Zuckerberg wrote.

The shift was likely to mean that the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement would go down in the short term, he wrote, but he added it would be better for users and for the business over the long term.

Advertising on the social network would be unaffected by the changes, John Hegeman, a Facebook vice president, said in an interview.

Facebook and its social media competitors have been inundated by criticism that their products reinforce users’ views on social and political issues and lead to addictive viewing habits, raising questions about possible regulation and the businesses’ long-term viability.

The company has been criticized for algorithms that may have prioritized misleading news and misinformation in people’s feeds, influencing the 2016 American presidential election, as well as political discourse in many countries.

Last year, Facebook disclosed that Russian agents had used the network to spread inflammatory posts to polarize the American electorate.

Congress is expected to hold more hearings this month, questioning the role social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter Inc <TWTR.N> and Alphabet Inc’s <GOOGL.O> YouTube play in spreading propaganda.

Zuckerberg said an overhaul of the company’s products, beginning with changes to the algorithms that control the News Feed, would help to address those concerns. Similar changes will be made to other products in the coming months, he said.

“We feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being,” Zuckerberg wrote. (http://bit.ly/2CSkTW6)

With more than 2 billion monthly users, Facebook is the world’s largest social media network. It is also among the world’s largest corporations, reporting $36 billion in revenue, mostly from advertising, during the 12 months that ended on Sept. 30.

A shift away from non-ad content produced by businesses is a potentially severe blow to news organizations, many of which use Facebook to drive readership, but Zuckerberg said many such posts have been unhealthy.

“Some news helps start conversations on important issues. But too often today, watching video, reading news or getting a page update is just a passive experience,” he wrote.

(Reporting by David Ingram in San Francisco and Paul Sandle in London; Editing by Sandra Maler and Lisa Shumaker)