Facebook Inc's oversight board on Wednesday upheld the company's suspension of former U.S. President Donald Trump but said the company was wrong to make the suspension indefinite and gave it six months to determine a "proportionate response."
In the much-awaited verdict that has been watched for signals on how world's largest social network will treat rule-breaking world leaders in the future, the board said Facebook had inappropriately imposed an indeterminate suspension without clear standards and that the decision required a company review.
The Board said Facebook should determine a response that is consistent with rules applied to other users of the platform. It said the company could determine that Trump's account could be restored, suspended temporarily or permanently banned.
Facebook Refuses Answer Some of the 46 Questions
"Facebook left the indefinite suspension in place and referred the entire matter to the Oversight Board, apparently hoping the board would do what it had not done," said former federal judge Michael McConnell, co-chair of the Oversight Board, during a press conference after publishing its decision on Wednesday.
In its decision, the board said Facebook refused to answer some of the 46 questions it posed, including those on how its news feed and other features affected the visibility of Trump's posts and whether the company planned to look into how its technology amplified content as it had done in the events leading to the Capitol siege.
McConnell added, "Indefinite penalties of this sort, do not pass the international or American smell test for clarity, consistency, and transparency."
Facebook indefinitely blocked Trump's access to his Facebook and Instagram accounts over concerns of further violent unrest following the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump supporters. It was one of a slew of social media sites that barred the former president after the riot, including Twitter Inc, where he is banned permanently.
Trump Blasts Board's Decision
"We will now consider the board's decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate," Nick Clegg, Facebook vice president of global affairs and communication, published in a blog entry following the decision. "In the meantime, Mr. Trump's accounts remain suspended."
Trump blasted the board's decision and the tech platform bans. "What Facebook, Twitter, and Google have done is a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country," he said in a statement warning that these companies will pay a political price. "Free Speech has been taken away from the President of the United States because the Radical Left Lunatics are afraid of the truth, but the truth will come out anyway, bigger and stronger than ever before."
Tech platforms have grappled in recent years with how to police world leaders and politicians that violate their guidelines. Facebook has come under fire both from those who think it should abandon its hands-off approach to political speech and those who saw the Trump ban as a worrying act of censorship.
Several academics and civil rights groups publicly urged the board to block Trump permanently, while Republican lawmakers and some free-expression advocates blasted the decision. Political leaders from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders expressed concern that private companies could silence elected officials on their sites.
At the time of the suspension, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a post that "the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great." The company later referred the case to its recently established board, which includes academics, lawyers and rights activists, to decide whether to uphold the ban or restore Trump.
The binding verdict marks a milestone for the board, which rules on a small slice of challenging content decisions and which Facebook created as an independent body as a response to criticism over how it handles problematic material.
It has been hailed as a novel experiment by some researchers but blasted by other critics who have been skeptical over its independence or view it as a PR stunt to deflect attention from the company's more systemic problems.
"Today's decision shows that the Facebook Oversight Board experiment has failed," said a group of academics, experts and Facebook critics known as the "Real Facebook Oversight Board." "This verdict is a desperate attempt to have it both ways, upholding the 'ban' of Donald Trump without actually banning him, while punting any real decisions back to Facebook."
On Tuesday, Trump launched a new web page to share messages that readers can then re-post to their Facebook or Twitter accounts. A senior adviser has said Trump also plans to launch his own social media platform.
'Facebook Acting Like a Democrat Super PAC'
U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, said in a tweet, "Facebook is more interested in acting like a Democrat Super PAC than a platform for free speech and open debate. If they can ban President Trump, all conservative voices could be next. A House Republican majority will rein in big tech power over our speech."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat, applauded the board's decision. "Facebook is not the public square," Hoyer said in a Washington Post live interview. "So they've made a determination and they don't want to be an avenue to convey that, through their medium, and I think they have the right to do that," Hoyer said.
Hoyer said the impact of social media and the tech companies has drawn a lot of interest on Capitol Hill and lawmakers plan to review outdated regulations governing them. "We're going to look at that closely," he said.