'A crisis of free expression': Ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger on why he joined Facebook oversight board

Alan Rusbridger is a British journalist, who was the editor-in-chief of the Guardian newspaper between 1995 to 2015.

In November last year, Facebook announced its plans to create an independent 'Oversight Board' that will make the call on how content is moderated on its platforms. Earlier this year, Facebook recommended some rules for how the 40-member board will work. Now, Facebook on Wednesday announced the first 20 members of the board.

Among the 20-member list that has been announced is Alan Rusbridger, who is a British journalist, and was the editor-in-chief of the Guardian newspaper between 1995 to 2015. He is now the principal of Lady Margaret Hall, a college of Oxford University.

Rusbridger has published an article on Medium titled: "Why I’m Joining Facebook’s Oversight Board"

He answers the question this way:

...there is a crisis of free expression — with oligarchs, populist leaders, and some corporations trying to delegitimise and repress the voices of those who would challenge them. Finally, there is a crisis of journalism: both the economic model which sustains it, and in the generally low levels of trust much of it enjoys.
Facebook sits at the heart of these interlocking crises — and it’s not hard to see why it’s tied itself in knots trying to solve even some of them.

 A crisis of free expression: Ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger on why he joined Facebook oversight board

Alan Rusbridger, Principal of Lady Margaret Hall; Chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Image: AP

In his blog, Rusbridger compares his gig at Guardian with him now being on Facebook's Oversight Board: "For 20 years I edited a fast-growing and dramatically changing news organization — The Guardian. Some of the challenges Facebook is grappling with are familiar, albeit on a vastly different scale. Others are issues that no one has ever, in history, had to think about."

He writes: The Oversight Board is one of the most significant projects of the digital age, “a pivotal moment” in the words of Evelyn Douek, a young scholar at Harvard, “when new constitutional forms can emerge that will shape the future of online discourse.”

(Also read: Facebook has announced the first 20 members of its independent, external Oversight Board: Here is the complete list)

In the blog, Rusbridger frequently addresses the wide scepticism about whether the board will truly be transparent and if it would work. He quotes Harvard academic, Dipayan Ghosh, who believes that the Oversight Board’s powers are too narrowly drawn. Ghosh says:

“We need oversight of the company’s data practices to promote consumer and citizen privacy...oversight of the company’s strategic acquisitions and data governance to protect against anticompetitive practice; and oversight of the company’s algorithmic decision — making to protect against bias.”

He adds that "it’s entirely reasonable to be sceptical, while also holding out hope that this new entity might have a real effect."

Rusbridger also talks about why the Oversight Board is a better alternative over government-led regulation, which was also previously discussed briefly.

He even goes back to January 2018 – where the idea for the board was apparently born - when a Harvard Law Professor, Noah Feldman in conversation with Mark Zuckerberg suggested that "whoever should be making some hugely consequential decisions about the information which half the connected people on the planet were plugged into, it probably shouldn’t be Mark Zuckerberg."

Alan Rusbridger concludes his blog with the idea that not a lot of media companies out there would like being to be regulated by an external board. But Facebook is trying it, and that we should keep hope that it works.

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