A FOIA for Facebook: Meaningful Transparency for Online Platforms

31 Pages Posted: 28 Nov 2021 Last revised: 19 Apr 2022

See all articles by Michael Karanicolas

Michael Karanicolas

UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy; Yale University - Yale Information Society Project

Date Written: November 16, 2021


Transparency has become the watchword solution for a range of social challenges, including related to content moderation and platform power. Obtaining accurate information about how platforms operate is a gatekeeping problem, which is essential to meaningful accountability and engagement with these new power structures. However, different stakeholders have vastly different ideas of what robust transparency should look like, depending on their area of focus. The platforms, for their part, have their own understanding of transparency, which is influenced by a natural drive to manage public perceptions.

This paper argues for a model of platform transparency based on better practice standards from global freedom of information or right to information systems. The paper argues that moves by platforms to assume responsibility over the truth or falsity of the content they host and amplify justifies a shift in how we understand their obligations of transparency and accountability, away from traditional self-reporting structures and towards a quasi-governmental standard where data is “open by default.” This change in posture includes creating a mechanism to process information requests from the public, to accommodate the diverse needs of different stakeholders. The paper also suggests establishing a specialized quasi-independent entity (a “Facebook Transparency Board”) which could play a role analogous to an information commission, including overseeing disclosure decisions and acting as a broader champion of organizational transparency. Although these changes represent a significant conceptual shift, they are not entirely unprecedented among private sector entities whose role includes a significant public function, and the paper notes a number of examples, such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers’ Documentary Information Disclosure Policy, which could serve as a model for the platforms to follow.

Keywords: FOIA, Facebook, Misinformation, Transparency, Corporate Social Responsibility, Digital Rights, Fake News, Freedom of Expression, Free Speech, Freedom of Information, Right to Information

Suggested Citation

Karanicolas, Michael, A FOIA for Facebook: Meaningful Transparency for Online Platforms (November 16, 2021). 66 St. Louis University Law Journal 49 (2021)., Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3964235 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3964235

Michael Karanicolas (Contact Author)

UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy ( email )

Yale University - Yale Information Society Project ( email )

127 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06511
United States

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