Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board

 

The Facebook narrative in the online child protection space seeks to position the company somewhere in the vicinity of Mother Theresa, Gandhi and a very large but cool cuddly teddy bear.  Soft, virtuous and hip.

Unless Facebook starts paying attention to a few very important details I’d say it is only a matter of time before those comforting images evaporate. They’ll be replaced by Donald Trump and barracudas. Some people say they are already there. I don’t. Not yet.

Composition and modus operandi of the Board

The composition and modus operandi of Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board is one of the things they need to focus on and get a grip. There should be much greater clarity about what it does and precisely how “independent” it is of company influences. To retain any credibility outside of the English-speaking world the Board ought also to broaden the basis of membership.

The Board consists of five NGOs. Four from the USA. One from the UK. What proportion of Facebook’s users do not come from those two countries? About 80%. How many languages does Facebook operate in? I’m told about 70.

When Facebook’s employees discuss online child safety they almost always refer to the existence of the Safety Advisory Board and the importance the company attaches to it. In my hitherto only blog on this subject (and this latest one I trust will be the last) I made clear how Facebook repeatedly uses the existence of the Board as part of the proof of the seriousness of its intent as a company when it comes to thinking about young people’s best interests as users of an online service. The vibe given out is the Safety Advisory Board has blessed Facebook and all who sail in her.

Quite a responsibility

That’s quite a responsibility for five small to medium-sized NGOs drawn from such a narrow geographical, socio-economic, cultural and linguistic band.

It is even more of a burden because some or all of the Board members have to sign an NDA which prohibits discussing Board business with anyone outside the miniscule magic circle. Not very Ghandi or Mother Theresa.

Of course Facebook talks to NGOs not on the Safety Advisory Board, including the one I am most closely associated with, eNACSO. Doubtless Facebook also does extensive market research in all the territories in which it operates. In a way that only raises further questions about the Board’s real purpose.

I’ve heard the term “critical friends” bandied about, to describe some of the Board Members’ dealings with Facebook, but the imbalance in the resources available to everyone involved casts real doubt on that particular hypothesis.

The Board’s stated purpose

According to Facebook’s web site the Board

provides advice on product design and helps us create comprehensive safety resources

I wonder how much time the Board spent on Sponsored Stories and Graph Search, to take but two recent examples? What advice, in the end, did the Board offer? Did the company follow some of it, all of it or none of it?

Given the massive number of under 13s, or indeed the number of 13-17 year olds on Facebook, can there be any projects the company gets involved in that do not have  implications for younger people? How do Board members cope with it all?

Are Board members really always involved at a high enough level and in a timely way prior to irrevocable decisions being taken within the company? How often are things presented fait accompli, for comment after the event? Who decides what is an issue that goes to the Board and what isn’t?

What accomplishments can the Board point to i.e. how and where has their existence impacted on Facebook policy? Was there a decision where the company was planning to go one way and it went a different route because of something the Board said? If you stacked up the FTC or the various Data Protection Commissioners around the world against the Board, who would have the higher hit rate in terms of improving Facebook’s performance? Indeed isn’t the number of times Facebook has been taken to task by regulators, legislators and editors something of a rebuke to the Board?

Independence? 

In Congressional testimony Facebook said that the Advisory Board is there to provide independent advice. There was no qualification. No elaboration. This notion of the independence of the Board is a constant theme. Sometimes it’s explicit, as in the evidence to Congress, always it is implicit. Hmmmm.

I do not know if all of the organizations on the Safety Advisory Board receive money or other types of material assistance from Facebook but at least two out of the five do.

In the interests of full disclosure Facebook should publish a complete account.

The simple truth is if someone is in any kind of close beneficial relationship with a company you just have to wonder how focused they are going to be on ferreting out or identifying problems. How far are they willing to go if they worry it might put the relationship in jeopardy? Money is tight everywhere. You may need to be especially brave to walk away from an actual or potential source.

One is left to speculate about the authenticity or sincerity of any praise as well as any apparent criticism that falls from the lips of Board members or anyone associated with their organizations. That’s not a good place for anyone to be.

Common Sense Media plainly had misgivings of some sorts in these areas so they terminated their membership of the Board after less than one year. As James Steyer put it

When we disagreed with them on privacy, they wanted us to keep it quiet

The way to go

If I was Facebook and I thought the Board could play a valuable role, being a member would automatically preclude the organization concerned, any of its employees or associates, from obtaining any pecuniary or other significant advantage from Facebook.

That might make the prospect of becoming a member of the Board rather unattractive. In which case, and this would anyway be my preferred solution, if I were Facebook I would put all of the members of the Board on professional retainers so there was no longer any ambiguity about their status and who they were working for.

Members of the Board would be universally recognised as Facebook’s Advisers, just like their lawyers and accountants. Board members, in effect, would work part-time for Facebook. But Facebook should nonetheless still try to find a more representative spread of organizations, and certainly they should go beyond the Anglophone countries.

Putting everyone on retainers would remove any misplaced expectations or perceptions. I can see no harm in Facebook also giving some latitude to Board members to discuss the company’s thinking with outsiders. Absent that Board members run the risk of becoming thought of as spies in the cab: they attend other people’s meetings, they hear what everyone else says, and presumably reflect some or all of it back to the mothership. But it’s all one way traffic. Not right.

Caesar’s wife and the Colossus 

In the world of online child safety Facebook is without doubt the Colossus. What it does, how it behaves, matters in ways which simply do not apply to smaller social networks or online businesses.

Facebook is a yardstick. In the field of online child safety they should be like Caesar’s wife. Today they emphatically ain’t.

Donald Trump, Ghandi,  barracudas, Mother Theresa, yardsticks, Colossus and cuddly teddy bears. Now Caesar’s wife. It’s all getting out of hand. I must sign up for one of those Metaphor Management classes.

About John Carr

John Carr is a member of the Executive Board of the UK Council on Child Internet Safety, the British Government's principal advisory body for online safety and security for children and young people. In the summer of 2013 he was appointed as an adviser to Bangkok-based ECPAT International. Amongst other things John is or has been a Senior Expert Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, a member of the Executive Board of the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was a appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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