Facebook's independent Oversight Board on Wednesday is expected to announce its biggest decision yet: whether to uphold or reverse Facebook's indefinite ban on former President Donald Trump.
The decision to ban Trump from both Facebook and Instagram, which the company owns, came after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. But it was precipitated by the months that Trump spent on social media both amplifying disinformation and casting doubt on his loss in the presidential election in violation of Facebook's rules.
"We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote at the time.
"We believe we took the right decision. We think it was entirely justified by the unprecedented circumstances on that day," the company's vice president for global affairs and communications, Nick Clegg, later told NPR.
And yet both Zuckerberg and Clegg have expressed concerns about any one company having so much power over online speech — especially when it comes to whether or not an elected leader can reach the social network's billions of users — which is why Facebook has asked the board to weigh in.
Facebook created the Oversight Board a year ago to make final calls on the most difficult decisions the social network makes about what users can post. Each case is decided by five members of the 20-person board. They consider Facebook's rules and international human rights principles and seek out the views of outside experts and members of the public.
In the Trump case, the board received more than 9,000 public comments. The final decision must be approved by a majority of the full board, and Facebook has agreed to abide by its ruling.
The Trump case is the biggest test so far of the board's legitimacy: whether it's seen as independent from the company that created and funds it, or whether it's seen as a cover to let Facebook duck responsibility.
The decision is also expected to set a precedent for how Facebook will treat the accounts of other world leaders and politicians. And it could be a model for other tech platforms grappling with the question of control over free speech.
"We know that they care a lot about international human rights law, and we know that they care a lot about freedom of expression," says Kate Klonick, an assistant professor of law at St. John's University, of the Oversight Board members. "But we don't know how that's going to impact when you have special circumstances like the one that they're dealing with in the Trump case."
Klonick is an expert in internet law and the author of a recent New Yorker article about the making of the Facebook Oversight Board. In an interview that aired Tuesday on NPR's Morning Edition, she said it's hard to know if the board will simply vote up or down to reinstate Trump, or whether it will consider letting him back on the site with some sort of restrictions. But either way, Klonick says, it will be "setting the tone here for what they're going to do going forward — how much power they're going to have."