What does Facebook’s Oversight Board actually do? This week Paul and Rich discuss the immense power that the Oversight Board holds. They talk about what type of oversight should exist and whether the current measures are enough. Also, Rich gets to flex his law degree breaking down the difficulties of translating policy into product.
Rich Ziade Slogo?! Hold on!
Paul Ford Slogo. Yeah, I know. It’s pretty exciting, right? ‘Cause you know what, they say ‘wordmark’ and I hate that. Like when it’s like ‘It’s a logo and a word. It’s the wordmark!’
RZ Yeah. It’s bad.
PF I’m like, what is that? Is it a word or a mark? I don’t know! But slogo… [music ramps up, plays alone, fades out] Rich.
RZ Yes, Paul, how are you today?
PF I’m alright. It’s noisy where you are, what’s going on there?
RZ They’re drilling a hole in the ground. I’m still working from home in Brooklyn. My streets closed at the very moment. So maybe this isn’t the best time to record a podcast. But you know, what a common theme of this podcast is Paul?
PF Rolling with the punches!
RZ No, rolling with the punches means you’re getting punched in the face. And you’re going to roll with the punch to the face. No.
PF Yeah, you’re not doing as many sales meetings lately. [Rich laughs]
RZ This is true. Powering through. We’re changing the logo, the slogan, I should say for Postlight.
PF The slogo?
RZ The slogan. The slogo.
PF We don’t really have a slogan, we never did that. We don’t have like ‘Postlight: Digital!’
RZ Digital first!
PF I mean, I don’t even, I don’t want a slogan, we’re not gonna have a slogan.
RZ We’re not gonna have a slogan. Anyway, we’re powering through here. Apologies for the buzzing in the background.
PF Well, look, we’re gonna make it work. And you know, frankly, they use AI technology to edit this podcast now, I don’t know if you know that.
RZ I think it’s just ‘I’. We have a great production team at editaudio.
PF No, no, there’s like a special thing thing-a-magig thing just for Logic. Yeah, no, no, like, it like fixed Skype calls like a lot of your podcasts like ours are actually basically just artificial intelligence talking to each other. I didn’t say these words at all, in fact, these have just been added in.
RZ I’m in another meeting. I’m not on this podcast right now.
PF God, you could hardly tell from listening! Alright, so Rich. Today, I logged on to my favorite website—
RZ Drudge Report?! [Rich laughs]
PF Noooo. You know, that is when when the election was heating up, I started to hit Drudge Report. And I knew that something was wrong.
RZ Why? I think it’s a good website.
PF Drudge Report is a classic, truly classic website. It’s a very specific point of view.
RZ It’s very specific. But you know what? It’s the UX of that website is perfect.
PF Oh, it’s truly one of the great all time websites. It’s just you don’t want to talk about that fact. [Rich laughs] But that’s not what I’m talking about Richard, I’m talking about Techmeme.
RZ I’m a fan of tech meme Techmeme.
PF Oh, it’s an absolute classic.
RZ Many years, run by a guy named Gabe Rivera, who’s actually pretty sardonic on the internet.
PF Deeply engaged.
RZ Very, very funny guy. Anyway, it’s a good site. They they compile headlines from around the tech industry. And what did you find at the top of Techmeme, Paul?
PF Well, first of all, who’s hiring? DuckDuckGo and Gary Vaynerchuk’s NFT project. There’s an actual podcast you can listen to. But let’s say you don’t look at that. You look at the enormous story on the top left. “Facebook Oversight Board upholds Trump’s suspension, but asked Facebook to review the decision within six months to determine a penalty consistent with its rules.” Hell of a headline. And then every single Twitter account and every single news organization is linked as covering this all important story. So it’s a big one, of course, we’ll have forgotten it in about three days. But nonetheless.
RZ Well, I think people have been waiting for this as a response.
PF Also what is this board? Can you describe the board?
RZ Yes, it is, it was spun out, I think it was, it came out of Mark Zuckerberg brain? I think the idea was, look, we’re a commercial business, yes. But we also have an outsized impact on the world. And sometimes people that use our platform can abuse it in terrible ways and cause very bad things to happen. But we don’t want to police speech, is essentially what they’re saying.
PF This is the great paradox. I think we you know, 100 years from now, when historians of law are writing about this moment, this will be one of the big things. Because the internet and you know, kind of general liberal public opinion up to about maybe 10 years ago was free speech is good, just a good thing.
RZ Free speech is good. But it is worth noting, I want to flex my law degree for two minutes here and talk about the common law framework that we live with today. When you write a law, right, and the ultimate set of laws in the country is the Constitution. But there are many laws that have been written since the constitution that have to stay constitutional. When you write a law, you’re making, you’re essentially putting some boundaries so that people can follow a set of rules, laws or rules, right? And you’re hoping that the language of the law is airtight enough such that if people just follow the rules of the law, everything will be fine.
PF Well, and if they go out, you can point to the law and say you didn’t follow the rules. Here are the rules.
RZ Well, I think what’s tricky here, though, is, and I’ll give you an example is that you can say, you know, people have the right to free speech, which they do. It’s in the Constitution, right? But what ends up happening? What ends up happening is you could yell fire in a theater, and cause a stampede, a lot of people could get hurt. And you can come back and say, “Hey, don’t tell me what I can’t say it’s free speech.” So what happens is—
PF So we decided as a culture, right, like, we have to put some limits on what people can do when they use their mouths to make sounds.
RZ There are exceptions to free speech, if you look it up, it’s an actual Wikipedia page. There’s a handful of exceptions that are well documented, but the point I’m making though, here is this, which is the law is think of it as sort of version 1.0. Let’s bring this to software, right, that goes out into the world. And then what happens is the law gets refined through what’s called case precedent or case loss, essentially, judges refine the law again and again. And it’s almost like software patches that bring greater and greater clarity around how the law works, right?
PF The agile approach to creating a society.
RZ Don’t do that. Don’t do that. [Rich laughs] No, no, no, it’s not the agile approach. And so what Facebook is acknowledging here is—
PF Worst nightmare is that Ted Talk right? Like that’s guaranteed to upset everyone. “How the law could be agile!”
RZ Yeah, no, nobody wants that Ted Talk.
PF Yeah, okay. So, Facebook! Sorry, I derailed.
RZ Well Facebook wrote laws, they have a set of community guidelines.
PF I mean, all the big platforms do, Twitter does too.
RZ All of them do. And Facebook did the best they could I think they have teams and armies of lawyers and drafts people writing these guidelines. And it turns out that human behavior, since the beginning of the existence of law has always been one step ahead. And you can never write language that is so utterly airtight that you will never have to revisit it.
PF Well, there’s another thing going on here too, which is literally there was an elephant in the room. I mean, there was a, like this giant, huge presence you couldn’t get away from. Most of these rules are written about like, wow, you said something really terrible that made my community feel unsafe. Actually, I heard about that community has told us for years, this is really bad, we finally took it seriously, we’re locking it down, we’re not gonna allow that behavior going forward. Okay, so that’s, you know, give and take. And a lot of people thought that think that it moves too slowly, but it’s very much about individuals or small groups and how they behave.
RZ Self policing. Yeah.
PF And then you dropped an actual kind of bomb and in this world, you know, which is the person who is transgressing the most dramatically was also the most powerful person in the world.
RZ Yeah. And and it was, it was unprecedented, right? And also, that argument, ‘you’re infringing on my free speech, leave me alone, don’t be selective’ was weaponized in such a way where that speech, like inciting hatred and inciting riots is an exception to free speech in the world. How can you not be one inside of Facebook? I will say this, though, I know, you know, it is unprecedented, but it’s not unprecedented. The truth is, it needed to be a uniquely American problem for it to be really dealt with head on. A lot of suffering around the world, in the wake of many of the revolutions in the Arab Spring and whatnot, which were, frankly, propelled forward by Facebook. Time and again, abuses had been had been voiced because Facebook has been weaponized many, many times, right? Let’s just say that out loud. And people have died.
PF They love it when the when cultures use their platforms to like, bring the teams together and protest, right? That’s like, see, look what we’ve enabled. And then when the dictator turns it around, and says, ‘Wow, hey, I’ve got a cult of personality. Twitter looks great.’ That part. They’re always like, well, you know, just can’t win them all.
RZ And I don’t think there was evil intention here. I think this is the thing we’ve talked about this in the past. This is the thing that got away from them. They’re like, what the hell’s going on in Egypt? I think it’s because of Facebook. Yeah, it’s because of Facebook and Twitter. And and so you’re left with this situation where these are people who are thinking about whether if make the button flush left or flush, right, all of a sudden, they’re thinking about the implications of a social media platform on an entire society and unrest that can spin off.
PF You know, it’s really worth doing nothing too. You go out and you hire a bunch of lawyers, right? You got money, and you need to deal with this. And you hire a bunch of lawyers, but the lawyers aren’t product managers, and they don’t know how to talk to the product managers and the product managers have their job. That’s right now everybody feels better because the lawyers are in there writing policy. But getting policy to translate into product is completely non trivial. It’s hard. If I said to you, Rich, what’s the best way to translate product into policy? I think we would have a four day conversation.
RZ We would have a four day conversation.
PF Like that is one of the hardest problems that exists in our world.
RZ It is. It really is. And these are not the people, these people were not equipped. They thought, look, this is going to be a massively successful ad platform. And it’s going to be great. Because if you like m&ms and you say that to your friend, I’m going to give you an m&m’s ad, and everything’s gonna be fine. And then what happened was, turns out—
PF And people will misbehave, we know people misbehave. But we’ll make a flagging mechanism.
RZ That’s right.
PF Liability is the great motivator, right? For everything. It’s always been possible, but it has to kind of like they only react when it’s a truly like national law.
RZ Yeah. And I think, I also think the bad actors, or the actors, not necessarily bad, because the people that are that are defending their positions, believe in them have gotten better and better at learning how to manipulate these platforms in very powerful ways. And look, let’s say this out loud. I mean, it feels like we’re partly defending Facebook, partly putting some of the responsibility on them.
PF We’re not defending, we’re just trying to explain.
RZ Oh no, but let’s say it out loud. I mean, Facebook’s track record has shown that they have a bias towards their business. And they put that ahead of the potentially damaging side effects that they can have on the world, and to the point where they’ve done some really shitty things.
PF They don’t like growth.
RZ They don’t like growth, but they’ve looked away at a bunch of things. And they’re complicit in a bunch of things. Let’s just say that out loud. Like it’s okay to say it.
PF It is important, right? Which is it like, it’s not exactly empathy. It’s just sort of like, okay, these things happen for a reason. These are big, complicated systems. And, you know, negative effects. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t wake up and say, I want to enable genocide in Myanmar, like that’s not who he is. But that’s what the system that they built enabled. And then yeah, it’s just this thing where you’re like, well, you know, scale is tricky. And ethics don’t scale. Those are all the things that I like to say when I’m talking about this. But then you keep tearing it, you just lift up the rock, and it’s just bugs like, well, yeah, we made that decision about advertising or whoops, we, you know, we decided to play that little prank on Tim Cook at Apple. And you’re like, what the hell? Why are you behaving this way? You don’t have to, you have a choice. Like you have lots of choices here Mark Zuckerberg.
RZ That’s right. That’s right. And look, you know, there’s this tension right now, which is an potentially another podcast, that Apple/Facebook tension that exists today around privacy and whatnot. But we don’t we don’t want to, we’ll save that one for another day. But look, ultimately, is there evil intent? I don’t think so. Is there a myopic view of what’s right, because it’s a beast of business? Yeah!
PF You don’t need evil intent at this scale to do evil.
RZ And people have different views about whether the Oversight Board is a good or bad thing. I think it’s a good thing for this reason. Back to my what I was saying before, which is laws get written. They get reinterpreted through case law, which refines the laws. Case, precedent is law, when the Supreme Court comes down with a decision, it’s law. From that point forward, it actually gets folded in to the set of laws that we follow. Eventually, ideally, the legislature actually codifies it and says, ‘Stop interpreting case opinion. And let’s actually write the law the right way, finally, once and for all.’ I think what Facebook has done here—
PF Wait, who does that? Who actually writes the law?