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Alan Rusbridger: Facebook oversight board must avoid 'half-baked judgements'

A member of Facebook's new oversight board has warned that it should avoid launching too quickly.

Alan Rusbridger told BBC Click that it would be "great to be up and running" in time for November's US elections.

But in an exclusive interview, he said it would be damaging to "come out with half-baked recommendations now before we are ready".

He did not yet know whether it would be ready to make "key decisions on the hot potatoes" of the Presidential election.

Mr Rusbridger also acknowledged calls for existing members of the board to weigh in on whether Facebook should follow Twitter in labelling and hiding some of President Donald Trump's posts.

But he said that without having studied the matter in a "sophisticated way", it would be "a bad way to proceed".

'Huge mistake'

Facebook has said the panel is supposed to act as a kind of supreme court, with the power to override decisions made by the social network's own moderators and influence policy.

Its eventual 40 members will be paid by Facebook but are intended to act as an independent body.

But not everyone is convinced of the scheme.

"Mark (Zuckerberg) controls the organisation," claimed Rashad Robinson of the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, which has urged firms to pull ads from the platform.

"I think it's a huge mistake for these individuals because unless they are going to change the infrastructure and change the incentives, then you are not actually going to change how things roll out.

"It's like saying you're a member of Congress but not actually having a vote on the floor."

Mr Rusbridger, a former editor-in-chief of the Guardian, acknowledged that many people were sceptical about the initiative but said it was "worth a try" to see whether the board could help Facebook's "engineers think through the moral, legal, editorial and ethical considerations that they have to wrestle with".

"If after two-to-three years we found out we are not having much of an impact, I guess a number of the board members would think: is this really worth it?" he said.

But he acknowledged: "We're going to be criticised whatever we do."

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Are you happy with the mix of people on the board?

I gather, they spoke to about 2,000 people - it certainly took them a long time. And it's a very interesting mix, in terms of geographical location, diversity and diversity of ethnicity. It's so you've got a sort of interesting bunch of lawyers, human rights activists, academics, journalists, troublemakers. If you wanted a quiet life, I don't think you would have chosen this board.

What made you take the job?

This issue of how the internet is regulated, or regulates itself, is one of the most important issues imaginable. We're facing a crisis of trust of knowing what's true and what's not true. And as somebody who passionately believed in the dream, the opportunity that the internet offered, it's been very sad to see it get into some degree of trouble. So, if we can pull this off, that would be an incredibly valuable thing to do.

Being paid by Facebook is going to be a challenge when it comes to convincing people about this.

What Facebook has done is to set up something like a trust. And although for the first few meetings there were Facebook people in the room, there are not now. It feels as though we are now an independent entity. So although the real money was provided by Facebook, I don't think we're going to have much to do with them in future.

How will this work in practice?

Facebook will come to us and say: here's a particularly thorny problem. And I expect there will be a big demand from users, saying: please get a grip on X, Y and Z, or here's a case where I feel aggrieved because I was ruled against and I want you to reconsider it. And we can choose for ourselves to say we want to look at a particular case.

Aren't you going to be swamped?

No, We can't possibly deal with the millions of issues that are contested on Facebook. So it comes back to trying to choose cases that seem to be typical of bigger, more wide-scale problems.

Will you publish your recommendations before Facebook has decided whether to listen to them or not?

We will certainly publish them independently of Facebook. We're in control of what we publish or not. Any suggestion that we were not publishing our opinions because Facebook didn't like them would be deadly to the project.

Do you have an eye on the other social media platforms? Twitter has taken a different approach to labelling Donald Trump's posts, for example, to Facebook.

We all have noticed the difference between the Twitter response and the Facebook response. I don't know enough about the culture of the few companies to explain why they came to different decisions. But I can see why a company would have got itself into a position of saying the First Amendment [to freedom of speech] is going to be our guiding star. Whether that is a tenable or right position, I don't know. That's one of the jobs that we're going to have to start thinking about. I can see why you would start there but maybe that's not a tenable, desirable position to end up with.

Do you feel that you're putting your reputation on the line here?

It's an interesting, valuable thing to attempt. If Facebook ignore it, or if it doesn't look as though it's working, then there's no incentive to stay.

BBC Click will broadcast the interview on Saturday 18 July on the News Channel or iPlayer in the UK, and BBC World News internationally

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