Facebook Pledges $130M For Content Oversight Board -- But Punts On Launching It

The financial commitment will help the board operate for a six-year period, Facebook said. It adds to the company's substantial expenditures on safety, security and content moderation.
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Facebook plans on plunking down some cash for a Supreme Court-like content oversight board, but isn't saying when it will launch. 

In a blog post on Thursday, the company said it’s committing $130 million to an oversight board intended to guide decision-making on acceptable content, but said it needs more time to determine who will be involved. Facebook (FB) - Get Report shares were falling 3.77% on Thursday after the WSJ reported that federal officials may seek an injunction against the company over antitrust concerns. 

The oversight board concept, which Facebook initially conceived in 2018, is intended to serve as an independent governance body that will guide criteria on what types of content should be removed from the platform, beyond the company's existing policies of complying with laws combined with its own frameworks for removing inauthentic or problematic activity. 

The board will be comprised of up to 40 people representing a range of perspectives, Facebook has said. It issued a call for nominations to the board earlier this year. The $130 million was described as an initial commitment earmarked for operational and staff expenses and "should allow the board to operate for at least its first two full terms, approximately 6 years."

However, Facebook appears to be having a harder-than-expected time identifying the makeup of the board. 

"While we had hoped to announce members by the end of this year, we’ve decided to take additional time to consider the many candidates who continue to be put forward," wrote Brent Harris, Facebook's director of governance and global affairs, in the post. He added that the board will start hearing cases next year. 

Thursday's post echoed prior commentary from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who has expressed discomfort with the idea that Facebook should arbitrate what constitutes acceptable speech. In a speech earlier this year, and later on the company’s third quarter earnings call, Zuckerberg expounded on Facebook’s commitment to free speech -- even, in the case of political advertising, when it contains falsehoods.

Thursday's blog post reiterated that the content moderation board arose out of Facebook’s discomfort with its “its role as the speech police.” The board’s charter, which was published in September, establishes a “speech protective” framework, but it will be up to the oversight body to decide what is acceptable within certain gray areas, such as content that is not necessarily illegal but violates human rights norms.

Content moderation, taken more broadly to include safety and security matters, represents an enormous challenge for Facebook as its social platforms grow. It is also a very costly undertaking for Facebook, and the oversight board will contribute to those expenditures.

Zuckerberg said in October that Facebook’s substantial investments in AI and machine learning to better weed out problematic content and accounts will not translate anytime soon into a less costly system, or reduce its need for human moderators. It currently spends roughly $5 billion per year on safety and security.

"I don't foresee any time in the near future that AI is going to make it so that the cost comes down,” he said. “There's just so much content flowing through the system that we do need a lot of people looking at this. And I don't think that's going to change anytime soon."

In addition, the delay in spinning up the oversight board signals that it won't be ready in time for a ramp-up in the 2020 presidential campaign, which Zuckerberg identified in October as a pressure point for the company. U.S. political rhetoric places Facebook "at the center of the debate," Zuckerberg said. 

In the absence of an oversight board, that means criticisms and ire surrounding political content may be solely directed at Facebook itself -- potentially placing it, again, in the crosshairs of lawmakers and regulators in the U.S. 

Facebook is one of several big tech firms under antitrust scrutiny by U.S. federal officials and a consortium of nearly all state attorneys general. 

The potential FTC action reported on Thursday could seek to bar Facebook from integrating its various apps and limit how it interacts with outside tech companies. The injunction could be applied as soon as January 2020, according to the WSJ. 

Facebook announced earlier this year that it aims to more closely integrate the back-ends of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. The FTC injunction, if applied, would restrict that initiative on the grounds that it may be anticompetitive and would make a forced breakup of the firm more difficult.

Shares of Facebook are up almost 50% so far this year.