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Facebook's Safety Advisory Board

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The Facebook narrative in the online child protection space positions 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.

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 it really ought 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 speaks about online child safety they almost always refer to the existence of the Safety Advisory Board and the importance the company attaches to it.

Quite a responsibility

The vibe given out by the company is the Safety Advisory Board has blessed Facebook and all who sail in her. 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.

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 but 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 each party casts real doubt on that particular hypothesis.

The Board's stated purpose

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?

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.

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 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. But Facebook should nonetheless still try to find a more representative spread of organizations, and certainly they should go beyond the Anglophone countries.

How Facebook behaves matters in ways which simply do not apply to smaller social networks or online businesses. It 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 and cuddly teddy bears. Now Caesar's wife. It's all getting out of hand. I must sign up for those Metaphor Management classes.