Two weeks ago, Facebook indefinitely suspended former President Donald Trump from its social network and Instagram, after a mob of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the risks of allowing Trump to keep using the social network were "too great."
Now, Facebook wants its newly formed independent oversight board to weigh in and decide whether it should reinstate Trump.
"We believe we took the right decision. We think it was entirely justified by the unprecedented circumstances on that day," Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice president for global affairs and communications, told NPR's All Things Considered.
He said Facebook is seeking the board's review because the move to kick a world leader off the social network for the first time is so significant.
"This decision has great consequence for similar situations which may arise in the future elsewhere," he said.
"There has been, in my view, legitimate commentary, not only here in the U.S., but crucially from leaders around the world" about Trump's suspension, Clegg said. "Many of those leaders and other commentators have said, look, they might agree with the steps we took, but they worry about what they view as unaccountable power of private companies making big decisions about political speech. And we agree with them."
Clegg said governments should set "democratically agreed standards by which we could take these decisions," rather than leaving it to companies like Facebook. But without such laws in place, he said, "we have to take decisions in real time. We can't duck them."
Facebook created the oversight board last year to review the hardest decisions over what the social network does and does not allow users to post. The board is funded by Facebook through an independent trust. The panel of international experts, which includes a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a former Danish prime minister, can also make policy recommendations to the company. The board began accepting cases in October but has yet to issue its first ruling.
"The Oversight Board launched in late 2020 to address exactly the sort of highly consequential issues raised by this case," the group said in a statement. "The Board was created to provide a critical independent check on Facebook's approach to the most challenging content issues, which have enormous implications for global human rights and free expression."
Trump's Facebook and Instagram accounts will remain suspended while the board considers the case. It must rule within 90 days, and Facebook must abide by its decision.
The Trump suspension will be the highest-profile and most controversial decision the board will consider in its first months of existence and, experts said, a critical test of its impact.
"It could become a potentially important institution that could operate as a meaningful check and balance to the extraordinary power Facebook exercises over the public sphere—or, alternatively, it could be a total flop," wrote Evelyn Douek, a Harvard Law School lecturer who studies online speech regulation, on the website Lawfare.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has long said the company does not want to be the "arbiter of truth," especially when it comes to speech from politicians and world leaders. The decision to suspend Trump from Facebook and Instagram was a sharp contrast to the largely hands-off approach the company has taken to political speech.
Critics say Facebook does not apply its policies evenly, noting that the company has not banned other controversial world leaders like President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, even though they have broken its rules.
"Most Americans will wonder what Facebook would have done if Trump had won the election," said a group of Facebook critics that calls itself the Real Facebook Oversight Board in a statement. "Meanwhile, many citizens in India and Brazil wonder why their leaders are not held to the same benchmark as Donald Trump and, even now, are using the Facebook group of companies to incite violence and spread misinformation."
Clegg said the company has asked the board for "observations or guidance about how we should handle these kinds of issues going forward." While those recommendations are not binding, he said the company is looking for more guidance about how to make tough calls.
"There are some people who think that Facebook should take down much more political speech. There are other people who think that we should leave much more up. And where you draw that line is candidly a matter of pretty fraught debate," he said.
Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.