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Photo Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Facebook's decision to ask its new independent Oversight Board to review the company's indefinite suspension of former President Trump is likely to set a critical precedent for how the social media giant handles political speech from world leaders.

What they're saying: "I very much hope and can expect … that they will uphold our decision," Facebook's VP of global affairs Nick Clegg tells Axios.

  • The board has 90 days to determine whether it thinks Facebook did indeed make the right call in suspending the ex-president in the wake of the Capitol siege. Until then, Trump will remain suspended.

Details: Jamal Greene, co-chair of the Oversight Board and a Columbia Law School professor, tells Axios that Facebook has indicated it will heed the board's guidance.

  • Greene says this is the first suspension case the board will be reviewing since it started hearing its first round of cases, all involving content takedowns, in December.
  • For now, only Facebook — and not individual users — can petition the board to review account suspensions.

Between the lines: Aside from the Board's binding decision, Facebook has also asked the board to provide additional guidance on how it should apply its policies toward political leaders' speech going forward.

  • Facebook seems eager to offload the burden of setting groundbreaking precedents onto the board, but its broad policy recommendations aren't binding. And Clegg cautioned that it's too early to say how the company would implement any guidance.
  • "If they have thoughts going forward about how and in what way we should be comporting ourselves in analogous situations in the future, it will be really interesting to hear," Clegg says. "But I am just a bit wary about talking in the abstract on this."

The big picture: The Trump ban has ignited a global conversation around whether private companies should hold so much power over free speech. World leaders from Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Poland and others have expressed concern that the bans set a dangerous precedent.

Our thought bubble: By asking the board for recommendations on how to generally handle inflammatory and false speech from world leaders, Facebook is ensuring it will have at least some ammunition as it faces that global pressure.

  • The board will either deliver a reasoned justification for the company establishing red lines that even world leaders can't cross, or an explanation that Facebook can refer back to for why Trump was a unique case.

Facebook has long argued that it doesn't want to have to make judgment calls about what political leaders should or shouldn't say, which is why it has taken the position not to fact-check their speech. The Capitol siege, however, was a clear indication to the company that Trump had violated its rules against inciting violence.

  • "It was a truly an unprecedented situation in U.S. political history," Clegg said. "We very firmly believe that was the right action to take."

Be smart: Deferring to the board on such a consequential matter would give the fledgling group major legitimacy.

  • Some observers have questioned whether the Oversight Board's $130 million in funding from Facebook means it can truly act independently.
  • Greene says the fact that the board is made up of a group of people who have other jobs and roles in society helps ensure the members will act with true independence. "We're people who have lives in other domains," he says.
  • The board is governed by a group of trustees, not Facebook. "Facebook can't discipline us. They can't fire us. They can't direct the decisions we make," Greene added.

The bottom line: "In an imperfect world, this is what accountability looks like," Clegg argued.

Go deeper

Jan 29, 2021 - Technology

Facebook seeks a new head of U.S. public policy

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Facebook is looking externally for a new U.S. policy chief as it moves Kevin Martin, a Republican who now holds the job, to a different position, per a memo seen by Axios.

Between the lines: Facebook is moving on from the Trump era in which Republicans held most of the power in Washington and Facebook was particularly eager among tech companies to forge warm relations with GOP policymakers.

App rush: Talent over trash

Data: Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. Chart: Michelle McGhee/Axios

Amid the sea of pollution on social media, another class of apps is soaring in popularity: The creators are paid, putting a premium on talent instead of just noise.

The big picture: Creator-economy platforms like Patreon, Substack and OnlyFans are built around content makers who are paid. It's a contrast to platforms like Facebook that are mostly powered by everyday users’ unpaid posts and interactions.

Jan 29, 2021 - Technology

Facebook developing a tool to help advertisers avoid bad news

Photo Illustration: Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook on Friday said it's testing new advertiser "topic exclusion controls" to help address concerns marketers may have that their ads are appearing next to topics in Facebook's News Feed that they consider bad for their brand.  

Why it matters: As Axios has previously noted, the chaotic nature of the modern news cycle and digital advertising landscape has made it nearly impossible for brands to run ads against quality content in an automated fashion without encountering bad content.