Facebook, ethics and reconstruction

At the moment it feels as if wherever you turn you come across a mea culpa ad from Facebook telling us they are getting serious about returning to their original declared mission. Lots of bad stuff they discovered was happening on their platform will either stop completely or be reduced to the greatest extent possible. This is all good news. Given Facebook’s size, importance and likely longevity it is in everyone’s interests, including their own, for them to emerge from the recent turbulence as a trusted brand. The challenge is huge but it is good that they are trying.

Linked to this reconstruction initiative, maybe as an integral part of it, I noted that, as the company relies ever more heavily on AI, they have recently established a dedicated “AI ethics team” and they are stepping up their efforts in respect of transparency.

In relation to both ethics and transparency Facebook really must  find a way to incorporate an independent element – a way of reassuring a sceptical public and regulators or would-be regulators.

While big platforms such as Facebook are private companies, in our modern world they perform important public functions and therefore they must accept that their actions have to be subjected to levels of scrutiny which are similar to those of public bodies and their behaviour must conform with several widely accepted public interest norms.

Speaking of transparency and ethics

While blowing away the cobwebs the sorry saga of Facebook’s  Safety Advisory Board  also needs urgent attention.  It is from another era. Things cannot stay as they are without casting doubt on much else. Here’s why.

In a court action in a Californian court Facebook’s lawyers described the Board as a source of “independent advice.”

In Congressional hearings the company’s Chief Safety Officer said the same thing. In numerous meetings I have attended, including recently, Facebook employees have nodded reverentially towards the Board as an important source of advice on online child safety within the company.

The implication always is the views of the Board are regularly sought and given great weight in the highest reaches of the business.

Yet we know nothing about how the Board actually functions. Why? Because everyone who is a member signs a non disclosure agreement. Only one organization,  Common Sense Media, has ever been a member and resigned. They did so precisely because they didn’t like feeling gagged or constrained.

The 800 lb Gorilla

If Facebook were some small outfit on the margins none of this would matter, or it wouldn’t matter so much. But it isn’t. Facebook is the 800 lb gorilla. What it does is hugely important, both in and of itself but also because it establishes a model others will follow. If Facebook does something, that sort of gives permission or impels everyone else to do the same. If Facebook doesn’t do it, why should they?

And then there’s the money

Aside from having signed up to an NDA, it looks like a goodly proportion of Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board also benefit financially from their dealings with the company. Whatever their protestations to the contrary this surely undermines any claim Board members or the Board itself might make about being “independent”. In the current climate one wonders why the company persists with it. It just doesn’t add up.

I leave on one side the feelings of resentment and jealousy such arrangements are bound to engender especially among those other groups Facebook talks to from time to time but never rewards financially or in any other way. The whole thing is not right and needs to be completely recast.

Look at Childnet International as an example. It has been a member of the  Safety Advisory Board continuously since the Board was created in 2009.

Last year Facebook awarded Childnet £500,000 to provide an anti-bullying programme in UK schools. I am sure the project is very worthwhile but for a UK NGO, by any standards £500,000 is a gigantic sum of money. Staff salaries and the rent are covered and who wouldn’t be glad of that?

Lots of charities  accept money from business, but rarely will the sums involved reach even 1% of their total revenues. In no sense could there be a reasonable perception that the charity is in any way beholden to the donor. When the amounts or the percentage get very big, that changes. When you have agreed to keep the company’s secrets for nine years on the trot and you take that amount of money………. please fill in the dots yourself.

Then there’s the US-based Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI). Like Childnet it has been a member of Facebook’s Safety Board continuously from the very beginning. Facebook clearly stands by and sticks with its friends. Like superglue.  There is almost no turnover in Board membership.  The only instance I found where someone, having been appointed, later ceases to be a member is the one I mentioned earlier. Everyone else is a lifer.

In the case of FOSI the financial relationship seems to be fully transparent and always has been. Facebook is a paying member of what is, in effect, a trade body. At various points FOSI has had and currently has a senior Facebook employee on its Board and our very own Lord Richard Allen has even been its Chair. Thus, as things stand, when Facebook, Childnet and FOSI are in the room, really people would be entitled to conclude the company has three votes present, not one.

Now let’s be clear – there is nothing wrong with companies seeking and paying for expert advice or asking you to undertake a project.  I have worked for many different outfits over the years. I keep my CV  as up to date as possible and online , covering both paid and unpaid work.

Confidentiality based on a professional relationship  is widely understood and accepted but the habit of big companies flattering NGOs or  individuals by inviting them in for consultations or briefings where signing an NDA is a requirement really should stop or  only  happen on an exceptional basis. Facebook wouldn’t expect its lawyers or accountants to give them free advice. Why should it be any different where child protection is at issue?  I’m going to stop signing NDAs like that.

What is it that needs to be kept secret?

And what is it about protecting children online that needs to be kept secret anyway? Like airlines in respect of air safety I thought it was established that online businesses don’t compete on issues connected with children’s welfare.

Obviously I get that the media can sensationalise and twist things but if Facebook cannot trust people’s judgement they shouldn’t be talking to them in the first place. Asking people to sign an ostensibly binding, or any rate an intimidating, NDA is wrong. It has certainly worked in the case of Childnet. Not once in nine years has anyone from there ever said a word or even vaguely hinted to me about what goes on at Board meetings and the NDA gives them a perfect excuse.

This kind of behaviour  on the part of Facebook calls into question other initiatives where we are told the industry is “working together” to address online child safety. Working together but not talking openly together?

Shine a light

Why are the Advisory Board’s agendas not published? And minutes? Can we be told who decides what items go on the agenda and on what basis? Can and do Board Members place items on the agenda or do they only react to matters the company brings to them? If so how does the company make its choices? How many of Facebook’s  most senior  management team have ever attended meetings of the Board and how often?

Outside of Board meetings how is advice sought from Board members? Are there any examples of where Facebook has been deflected from a course of action because of interventions, objections or recommendations made by the Board or Board members? Has Facebook ever initiated a course of action based on an idea that came first from a member of the Board?

To go back to my earlier point, Facebook  may legally be a private company but it operates in very public places. People have a reasonable expectation of transparency, maybe particularly where child safety matters are being discussed.

How do they manage the day job as well?

Given the apparently large number of people employed within Facebook on child safety related matters, how do they relate to the Board or Board members? And with the gigantic scale of operations of Facebook how the heck do Board members cope anyway? They all have day jobs. Doesn’t this arrangement invite the suspicion that the whole thing is window dressing?

If Facebook wants to continue to“reach out”  in search of advice and guidance it should do so in a more credible and professional way e.g. like it does with lawyers and accountants – hire people and make it a condition of doing so that they avoid any possible semblance of a conflict of interests.

Or at the very least, as part of its transparency initiative every time it makes an award, gives a contract or provides any other kind of benefit to an NGO that sits on any of its committees or Boards or has any kind of ongoing relationship with the company the amount or nature of the benefit should form part of a transparency report.

But let Facebook have the last word

Here is an extract from Facebook’s “Code of Conduct” on corporate governance. The code applies to employees of Facebook or any of its affiliates or subsidiaries. Are Childnet and FOSI “affiliates”? Even if strictly-speaking they aren’t, the logic of the code is clear.

This is what it says in the section headed  “Conflict of Interests”

…..Facebook Personnel should attempt to avoid actual or apparent conflicts of interest…. For example, a conflict of interest may occur when you or a family member receive a personal benefit as a result of your position with FacebookA conflict of interest may also arise from your personal relationship with a customer, supplier, vendor, competitor, business partner, or other Facebook Personnel, if that relationship impairs or may be perceived to impair your objective business judgment

And in the section headed “Serving on Boards and Investing in Other Companies”…..

We encourage Facebook Personnel to be active in industry and civic associations. However, Facebook Personnel who serve on boards of directors or advisory boards of any entity or organization are required, prior to acceptance, to obtain approval from the Conflicts Committee.

Any passive investment of not more than two percent (2%) of the total outstanding shares of a publicly traded company is permitted without Facebook approval, provided that the investment is not so large financially (either in absolute dollars or percentage of your total investment portfolio) that it creates the appearance of a conflict of interest. ( emphasis added).

I could hardly have put it better myself. The same principles should be applied in every area of the company’s dealings.