with Aaron Schaffer

Members of the Facebook Oversight Board defended their controversial decision on former president Donald Trump’s account in a series of media appearances in recent days. 

The Facebook-funded panel of Nobel laureates, former politicians and free-speech experts has been the focus of politicians and advocacy groups since announcing it would uphold Trump’s suspension, but that Facebook has to make the final call about what to do with Trump's account within six months. The decision led some to accuse the board of sidestepping its responsibilities in bouncing the case back to the company. 

“This is not a decision about Donald Trump, but rather a decision about Facebook,” John Samples, a member of the Oversight Board, said at an Axios event yesterday. 

Samples said the board found that Facebook enforced a rule that didn’t exist at the time. Trump was suspended indefinitely, rather than permanently or for a specific period of time, as defined by the company’s own rules. “In a sense we were being tough with them,” Samples said. 

Other members said the board’s call should reassure anyone concerned that Facebook wields too much control over online speech. 

“Anyone who’s concerned about Mark Zuckerberg’s power and his company’s power over our speech online should actually praise this decision,” Julie Owono, executive director of Internet Sans Frontières, said at a virtual event hosted by the Stanford Cyber Policy Center. “The board refused to support an arbitrary suspension.” 

The controversy over the board's decision has ignited a debate about the limits of self-regulation. 

The flurry of media appearances marked a critical moment in the board's existence, as it tries to prove its legitimacy, define its powers and establish its relationship with Facebook. The board was conceived as Facebook's answers to global calls for greater regulation and accountability –  and the Trump decision is a major test of whether such a system could become a model for policymakers struggling to come up with ways to check tech giants' power over online speech.  

U.S. tech companies largely do not have to take responsibility for the content people post on their services. Many lawmakers want to change that, but there are First Amendment concerns about the government playing a greater role in regulating online speech. 

“If you can make independent self-regulation work, and it is truly independent and it functions ... that is the most effective form of content regulation,” Facebook Oversight Board Director Thomas Hughes told Issie Lapowsky at a Protocol event this week. 

“The other pathways, looking at statutory or direct government regulation or no regulation at all, they are, I would say, from my perspective, undesirable. I think they will have very problematic outcomes.”

Yet these defenses are unlikely to satisfy policymakers who feel the board didn’t go far enough. 

Democrats are angry the board didn’t move to permanently ban Trump from the platform, after he used social media to incite deadly attacks at the Capitol on Jan. 6. 

Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) said to punt such an important decision back to Facebook after months of secret deliberations calls into question their purpose. 

Some activists feel the board is distracting from the larger problems with Facebook. 

Activists who want greater government regulation of the social network say a focus on the board is preventing structural changes at Facebook. 

“Lending their credibility and their name to these things, they are slowing down the pace of change,” Rashad Robinson, president of the civil rights group Color of Change, said in an interview. “History will remember in these moments, this group of people that decided to come in and work for an unaccountable billionaire rather than structural change.” 

Yet other experts believe the board has the potential to force greater transparency and predictability. Alex Stamos, a former Facebook chief security officer and director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, said the board's critics of have yet to propose better ideas. 

“Out of all the horrible options, this seems to be the least bad option so far,” Stamos said at the Stanford virtual event. 

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Internet service providers fueled an effort to file fake comments opposing net neutrality, New York’s attorney general said.

Broadband for America, an industry group, spent $4.2 million to generate more than 8.5 million fake comments to the Federal Communications Commission supporting a 2017 repeal of the rules, which were designed to make Internet providers treat all Web traffic equally, the Associated Press’s Tali Arbel reports

The effort, according to documents that New York Attorney General Letitia James’s (D) office received, was to give the impression of  “widespread grass-roots support” for the repeal and give Ajit Pai, the commission’s chairman at the time, “volume and intellectual cover” for a repeal, which was successful. James's office estimates that 18 million of the 22 million comments submitted were fake.  

James announced agreements with three of the companies that were responsible for millions of the fake comments: Fluent Inc., Opt-Intelligence Inc. and React2Media Inc. The agreements require them to pay $4.4 million in fines.

Mark Zuckerberg is taking on a more active and public role at Facebook as it battles antitrust and public scrutiny.

Zuckerberg told employees last week he’s trying to “engage with more of the product work” and make sure Facebook is “doing what we can to also highlight and focus on some of the positive parts of what we’re doing,” the Information’s Alex Heath and Sylvia Varnham O'Regan report. A communications plan from this year, according to a person who saw it, reiterated Zuckerberg plans to step up media appearances to promote the company’s services and products.

The PR push comes as the company battles the public’s negative perceptions of it. Internal metrics showed U.S. users’ perceptions of Facebook at the beginning of the pandemic at about 40 on a scale of 100. By the end of 2020, users who were surveyed gave the company a score of 11.5. The company, however, remained popular outside the United States at the end of 2020, garnering a 66, down just two points since the middle of the year.

Amazon drivers say they’re told to turn off safety monitoring systems to meet quotas.

Amazon delivery drivers in five states told Motherboard’s Lauren Kaori Gurley they were told to log out of Mentor, a smartphone app the company uses to monitor driver behavior, or turn off their phones’ Internet access or power. The drivers, who are contractors working for Amazon’s delivery partners, said they are concerned about breaking traffic laws and driving recklessly.

“Speeding was the main thing. They were harsh on drivers that weren’t going as fast as they wanted,” said a former driver in Michigan who quit last month. “I complied when they asked me to turn off the app because I didn't want to cause friction. But it was a lot of stress, high blood pressure, seething anger and frustration.”

“This behavior is unacceptable and does not adhere to the safety standards that we expect of all Delivery Service Partners,” Amazon spokeswoman Rena Lunak said. It’s also misleading to suggest that this behavior is necessary in fact, more than 90 percent of all drivers are able to complete their deliveries before the scheduled time while following all safety procedures.”

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).

Rant and rave

Twitter users have already dreamed up innovative ways to use the platform's new tipping feature. Comedian Kurtis Conner:

Author Chuck Wendig:

Social media activist group Sleeping Giants:

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Daybook

  • The House Financial Services Committee’s artificial intelligence task force holds a hearing on how AI can address systemic racism today at noon.
  • Rosemary Harold, who leads the FCC’s enforcement bureau, speaks at an event hosted by the Federal Communications Bar Association, or FCBA, today at noon.
  • The Atlantic Council hosts an event on social media companies’ reaction to extremist content on their platforms on May 11 at 1 p.m.
  • Acting FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, acting FTC chair Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau acting director Dave Uejio discuss consumer protection at a National Association of Attorneys General conference along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) on May 11 at 3 p.m.
  • The Senate Commerce Committee meets to consider the Endless Frontier Act and the nomination of tech critic Lina Khan to be a Federal Trade Commissioner on May 12 at 10 a.m. 

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