Once more, with feeling: Facebook’s new Oversight Board continues to be an attempted end-run around actual regulation

Of course it will be a “reputational shield,” as The Guardian puts it. That’s the whole point of these types of exercise. So long as Facebook makes the rules, it holds all the cards that matter.

Global platform governance is an issue area in dire need of more International Political Economy analysis.

Reposting some comments from Twitter:

No, Facebook’s oversight board does not solve its legitimacy problem.

I wrote about how to evaluate such platforms, and FB’s board in particular, in this paper.

Global #platformgovernance is an example of Dani Rodrik’s global governance trilemma: You can only have two of the following three: democratic governance, national sovereignty and hyperglobalization.

With its oversight board, FB has chosen hyperglobalization — one ruler for everyone — and the (neutered) nation-state, who will have to take whatever Facebook decides. So whatever legitimacy this board has, it’s certainly not democratic.

Instead, Facebook’s strategy is to claim legitimacy for its plan and itself by saying that it’s going to rely on human-rights experts. Which sounds fine; after all, you’re not against human rights, are you?

The problem here is the same one we find in pretty much every other area of global economic governance, namely that not only do “experts” have honest policy disagreements, but different societies have different views on what the means and ends of policies should be.

In his excellent and highly readable book, The Globalization Paradox, Rodrik points out that European and American policymakers have very different tolerances for risk in their financial markets. Who’s correct? That’s the point: it’s in the eye of the beholder.

Global legitimation via expertise only works with shared agreement over both means and ends. You don’t have that in most areas of economic policy, and you certainly don’t have it when it comes to platform regulation.

(I note in particular that Facebook lumps Canada in with the United States, with the US having 25% of all board members. Fun fact: The two societies have VERY different views on speech regulation.)

So how do you adjudicate between honest but potentially irreconcilable differences if you can’t rely on experts? Rodrik argues convincingly that in economics, you should leave countries with enough policy space to set their own way if they believe it’s necessary.

This is the exact opposite of Facebook’s (and every global platform’s) approach.

And once more, with feeling: The key issue isn’t whether you’re basing your system on “international human rights”, but who defines what international human rights means. There can be legitimate differences regarding how to legislate “international human rights.”

For example, one human-rights norm that Facebook and its supporters conspicuously and consistently ignore: the right to democratic self-determination. In the face of honest disagreements, who gets to decide? In this case, it’s Facebook initially and then it’s rule by experts.

After all, courts don’t have legitimacy just because they’re transparent and follow the rule of law; it’s because they’re grounded in a democratic system. This board has no such legitimacy.

Facebook’s advisory board is what it always has been: A transparent attempt to stave off actual regulation by (democratic) nation-states. Because at the end of the day, somebody always calls the shots. I’d rather have that person face some sort of (democratic) accountability.

Finally, so much of what’s written in this area could be improved by some exposure to some International Political Economy. Rodrik’s got some useful insights, and if you want to understand power and platforms, check out Susan Strange’s States and Markets.

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