Facebook's Oversight Board on Wednesday upheld the social media's website suspension of former U.S. president Donald Trump's account four months ago following the deadly Jan 6 Capitol riot but said the company must review its "arbitrary" decision in ousting him indefinitely and decide whether the freeze should be permanent.
Facebook must complete its review within six months of the board's decision, possibly opening the door to Trump's return.
Shortly after the board announced its decision, Trump issued a statement calling it a "total disgrace". He called Facebook, Google and Twitter corrupt and reiterated his complaint that the tech companies' moves against him are an assault on free speech.
"These corrupt social media companies must pay a political price and must never again be allowed to destroy and decimate our electoral process," he said.
"Facebook is more interested in acting like a Democrat Super PAC than a platform for free speech and open debate," said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican. "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."
New Jersey Democratic Representative Frank Pallone, chairman of the House energy and commerce committee, tweeted: "Donald Trump has played a big role in helping Facebook spread disinformation, but whether he's on the platform or not, Facebook and other social media platforms with the same business model will find ways to highlight divisive content to drive advertising revenues."
The Oversight Board said that CEO Mark Zuckerberg's decision to ban Trump "indefinitely" was an "indeterminate and standardless penalty". "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,'' it said.
The Facebook decision was made by five members of the current 20-person Oversight Board, then ratified by a majority of the full board. The identities of the five individuals involved in the decision won't be revealed. Facebook funds the London-based Oversight Board and has said it is independent of the company.
The board found that two of Trump's posts on Jan 6 "violated Facebook's rules prohibiting praise or support of people engaged in violence." The violating posts, the board said, included referring to "great patriots" and calls to "remember this day forever".
"At the time of Trump's posts, there was a clear, immediate risk of harm and his words of support for those involved in the riots legitimized their violent actions," the board said Wednesday. "Given the seriousness of the violations and the ongoing risk of violence, Facebook was justified in suspending Trump's accounts on Jan 6 and extending that suspension on Jan 7."
In January, Facebook asked the Oversight Board — a panel of lawyers, human rights advocates, academicians and former politicians from around the world and independent from the company — to review the ban, as well as provide more general recommendations about how the platform should treat rule-breaking content from world leaders.
In a blog post, Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice-president of global affairs and communications, reiterated that the company believed its decision to suspend Trump was "necessary and right", saying: "We're pleased the board has recognized that the unprecedented circumstances justified the exceptional measure we took."
The board received more than 9,000 before making its decision, including a brief from Trump.
Facebook joined Alphabet Inc's YouTube, Twitter, SnapChat and other social media platforms in removing then-president Trump after accusing him of inciting the riot at the Capitol. The riot, which left five people dead, followed a speech by Trump alleging the presidential election had been stolen from him and calling on his supporters to take their grievances to Congress.
YouTube has said it will allow Trump to return to its platform when it is "safe" to do so.
Trump had more than 35 million Facebook followers and more than 24 million Instagram followers. He also had more than 88 million Twitter followers before he was blocked, and often used the platform to break news or announce policy moves.
On Tuesday, Trump launched a new "communications" website, which says it will publish content "straight from the desk" of the former U.S. president.
Agencies contributed to this story.