Oversight Board Cuts the Baby in Half Because Facebook Wouldn't

In a much-anticipated ruling on the propriety of Facebook Inc.’s (NASDAQ: FB) decision to suspend the account of former President Donald Trump, Facebook’s Oversight Board on Wednesday upheld the company’s decision to ban Trump from posting more content to his Facebook and Instagram accounts.

However, the board said:

[I]t was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension. Facebook’s normal penalties include removing the violating content, imposing a time-bound period of suspension, or permanently disabling the page and account.

In addition:

The Board insists that Facebook review this matter to determine and justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform.

The review must be completed within six months.

What the decision means is that Facebook can no longer dodge responsibility for making a decision regarding the former president’s accounts. Because Facebook writes the rules (and the board does not dispute its right to do so), it must enforce them as written, not make up a penalty on the fly.

Facebook barred the former president from posting to his accounts following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, an insurrection that Trump is accused of having supported. After the Capitol was secured, Facebook removed a Trump post for violating its standards on dangerous individuals and organizations. The next day, Facebook blocked Trump from further posting “indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”

The Oversight Board said in its ruling that:

It is not permissible for Facebook to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored.” Facebook has six months to “reexamine the arbitrary penalty … and decide the appropriate penalty … [one that] must be based on the gravity of the violation and the prospect of future harm. It must also be consistent with Facebook’s rules for severe violations, which must, in turn, be clear, necessary and proportionate.

Facebook stock traded essentially flat Wednesday morning, at $318.54 in a 52-week range of $200.69 to $331.81.