Meta’s supervisory board often turns in its homework late. Does it matter?
On June 17, the Meta Oversight Board released its 25th decision. This ruling, in the Knin Cartoon case, reversed Meta’s original decision to let a cartoon video be edited that depicted ethnic Serbs as rats. According to operation rules as Meta wrote when the board was created, that decision was to be made public on June 13. That is, the board’s decision was four days late, according to its statutes. This may sound like a pedantic nitpicky. Four days? It seems unlikely that anyone lost sleep during this small delay.
But the delay is worth considering, precisely because it says something interesting about a deeper question surrounding the council: what kind of institution is it exactly?
This article lays out the council’s fairly frequent record of late publication of decisions, in violation of its own governing documents, before looking more broadly at what it might suggest about the council.
A register of late decisions
The bylaws of the board read as follows:
From the publication of the selection of a case, the board has ninety (90) days to render a final decision with respect to any particular case. This deadline may be extended in exceptional circumstances or in the event of technical or operational incidents preventing the Board from issuing a final decision within this deadline. If the deadline is extended, such extension will be notified to the person posting (as well as the person reporting, if different), Facebook and the public. The administration, on behalf of the board, will monitor each case chosen and ensure that the board renders its decision within this timeframe. (Emphasis added.)
In the Knin Cartoon case, the Supervisory Board announcement that she would consider the case on March 15, along with two other cases, the Sudan graphic video case and the Case Reclaiming Arabic Words. The board issued decisions for the latter two on the date they were due, which was June 13, exactly 90 days after they were announced. But in making these decisions, the board made no mention of the Knin Cartoon case. In fact, neither then nor later did the Commission issue a notice of extension to the public.
And it was not the first time, according to our calculations, that the Supervisory Board had missed a deadline: in February, the board published two decisions—its Advice on the case of pharmaceutical drugs and his Journalism on the case of sexual violence— one day late, according to the statutes of the council. (The decisions were delivered on February 1, 91 days after their announcement date of November 2, 2021.)
When Right asked the Supervisory Board to comment on these delays, he replied:
The Council has, in exceptional cases, delayed the publication of certain case decisions, as permitted by the statutes of the organization. Thoughtful processes and the integration of diverse perspectives are essential to effective recommendations and the board’s ability to foster greater transparency and accountability at Meta. While the Board seeks to balance the timely delivery of case recommendations, it will not sacrifice rigor for speed.
The board is correct in noting that the bylaws allow for delaying decisions on cases in the event of “exceptional circumstances.” And we certainly don’t want to suggest that we ask him to “sacrifice rigor”! But the bylaws explicitly state that in such a case, the board must notify the public. The board is clearly aware of this requirement and sees its value. It has in the past provided such notice: for example, the board has taken 104 days make its final decision in the Trump suspension case—a time limit in accordance with its by-laws, the council invoked the “exceptional circumstances” clause and provided public notification on April 16, 2021, shortly before the original filing deadline.
In other cases, the board provided post-clearance notification of delayed decisions. According to advice most recent transparency reportpublished in June, three additional decisions were overdue: wampum belt and Ayahuasca tea the judgments were rendered 99 days after the start of the 90-day period (9 days late) and the Crimes alleged in Raya Kobo decision came 104 days after the start of the period (14 days late). In this report, footnotes explained that “[f]During this quarter, decisions on all three cases experienced delays resulting in the publication and implementation of decisions beyond the regular 90-day period. These delays were caused by availability issues both within Meta and the Supervisory Board due to seasonal holidays. Further, the council added that “[t]there was a further delay in the Ethiopia case due to translation issues.
Rightit is online tracker hadn’t made up for those delays, as the council began its countdown when the cases were assigned to the panel – a date that was not public until the transparency report was released – rather than when the case was announced, which is the date on which Right used to track deadlines. Certainly, such post hoc notification of delayed decisions violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the board’s rules.
In March 2021, the board had amended its bylaws to require the 90-day period to begin “when the Board assigns a case to the panel” as opposed to the date of “Facebook’s last decision on a case.” In November 2021, the board again amended its bylaws to kick off the 90-day clock “when we release our selection of a case, rather than when it’s assigned to a panel.”
All this to say, six of the 25 decisions issued by the board so far were issued late with no comment provided by the deadline, as shown in Figure 1. That is, more than 20 percent board decisions are made late, in violation of the board’s own regulations.
Figure 1. Overview of Oversight Board case timelines, with cases listed sequentially by decision date. Data from Oversight Transparency reports through Q4 2021; Right tracker for subsequent decisions.
Notice of delay provided to public prior to decision.
Why is this important? The most obvious thing this record of late decisions suggests is that the Board is somewhat overwhelmed with its workload. Decisions are consistently rendered until they are due and, as Figure 1 suggests, this is happening more and more over time. If the board is struggling to keep pace with its current workload – a modest six cases have been announced in the past eight months, suggesting that the current size of the board’s role is about its limit. Because the board can only ever resolve a tiny fraction of the content moderation issues that arise on Meta’s platforms, this could be a huge strain on the board’s ability to have an impact. (For context, more than 1.1 million cases were submitted to the Board of Directors by users and Meta from October 2020 to December 2021. Context also may be relevant: the members of the Board of Directors are would have
earning six-figure salaries.)This makes it all the more confusing that the board hasn’t increased in size significantly. According to the board’s charter and bylaws, it has a “ideal size” of 40 members when “fully staffed .” The council announced its first 20 membersover two years ago , added (andlost ) a member in 2021, and recently increased its size by announcing
three more members in May this year. The council did not explain why it took so long to increase its membership (although the pandemic likely played a role). But it’s clearly something the board could and should have prioritized more actively to maximize its potential, given what the delays suggest about bandwidth’s role in limiting the board’s output. The council’s late decisions also highlight its strange institutional status. The Board of Directors is a purely self-regulatory private body, created by Facebook at the time, with no independent legal authority or particular source of constitutive legitimacy. In fact, it is precisely for this reason that many observers have called the board of directorsentertaining masquerade . Seemingly to counter these perceptions, Facebook and the council have dressed the council in all the trappings of a court-like institution. It was established by acharter and he hasstatutes
. Its decisions clearly mimic judicial opinions, citing legal authorities and precedents, and noting dissenting opinions among its members. The attempted message of all these features is clear: the board is a serious institution that you should take seriously. Much like the judges wearing robes, the council is dressed in official clothing in an attempt to demonstrate its authority.
But if this legitimacy is to be maintained, the board of directors must commit even if it does not suit them. And failure to comply with the undemanding requirement to provide public notice of late decisions does not inspire confidence in the board’s commitment to its other operating principles, many of which cannot be verified by external observers.
Again, we don’t want to overstate the importance of a few missed deadlines. God knows we missed a lot of deadlines. But if the board wants others to take its performance seriously, perhaps it should lead by example and take its own rules seriously.