Q&A with Sheryl Sandberg : „We will never stop all the bad from happening“

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Sheryl Sandberg Bild: Bloomberg

Facebook is in the biggest crisis of its history. Sheryl Sandberg answered questions about the future of Facebook and herself.

          7 Min.

          Sheryl, Facebook is in the biggest crisis of its history. Will it survive?

          Yes. Without question, the last few years have been difficult for Facebook. We've acknowledged our mistakes – and we’re listening, learning, and making real progress.

          What kind of progress?

          We’ve taken aggressive steps, including investing heavily in safety and security, protecting against election interference, cracking down on misinformation, giving people more control over their data, and significantly increasing transparency about our policies and decisions. Without a doubt, we now have a fundamentally different approach to meeting these challenges – and we're not the same company we were in 2016, or even a year ago.

          Is that enough?

          We will never stop all the bad from happening, but we’re working more closely with governments, outside experts, and other tech companies to tackle bad actors. Speaking for Mark, myself and everyone at Facebook, we are more determined than ever to keep people safe on our services and make sure the good things people love about our apps can keep happening every day. 

          If there is one thing you personally would like to have done differently this past year at Facebook, what would it be?

          I, and everyone at Facebook, accept the deep responsibility we have to protect the people who use our services. We know we need to get better at anticipating all of the risks that come with connecting so many people. We need to be faster to stop abuse on our platforms. We need to do more to protect people’s information. There's still a lot of work ahead and we are far from finished. I go to work every day knowing that the actions we take affect people’s lives. Our mission is critical, and I’m committed to seeing it through with all of the great people in our company.

          Will you stay at Facebook’s helm?

          Yes, there's an important job to do.

          With the share-price being down more than 30 percent since July and the ongoing discussions around issues like privacy or data-sharing, other companies probably would have changed their senior leadership already – at least in parts. Don’t you think a new face is necessary to rebuild trust in the biggest social network of the world?

          We know we need to do much more to earn back people’s trust and we must demonstrate that with effective, ongoing action. Mark and I built this company together and feel a deep responsibility to address our challenges together head on. It won’t be easy and it will take time, but we're committed to doing what it takes. 

          Within the „Techlash” we have been experiencing for far more than a year now, no other company has been as heavily scrutinized as yours. Do you think Facebook is being disproportionately singled out for criticism?

          We’re a large platform that touches billions of people's lives. With that comes responsibility and intense scrutiny. We accept that and take our responsibility incredibly seriously.

          Why does Facebook in fact exist today?

          Our mission used to be giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. In 2017, it changed to giving people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. The part that stayed the same? Giving people the power – to stay in touch with loved ones, build supportive communities across borders and cultures, start and grow businesses, and organize around causes that matter to them. Every day, people can use their voice on our apps and have a chance to be heard. That is the kind of world we are trying to build.

          Will there still beone Facebook” or many different Facebooks in different regions among  different regulatory environments?

          We believe governments have a right and a duty to set new rules and boundaries for the internet. We support this and are working with governments around the world. I believe any regulation should be effective, pro-innovation and created to strike the right balance. It’s worth every effort to get the internet we all want and it’s in everyone’s interest to work together.

          Mark Zuckerberg once said: „In a lot of ways, Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company. We have this large community of people, and more than other technology companies we’re really setting policies.“ Do you agree with his assessment?

          We’ve come to believe that Facebook should not make so many important decisions about free expression on our own. Last year, we started letting people appeal our decisions about what’s allowed on Facebook so they can get a second opinion if they think we’re wrong. In November, Mark announced that we’re giving power to an independent body to hear these appeals. We hope that by doing this we can prevent the concentration of too much decision-making within our teams, create accountability and oversight, and provide assurance that these decisions are made in the best interests of our community. We are consulting broadly with experts, academics, and users to define how this will work and we will have more to share soon. 

          Looking at social media more generally, we seem to be at an important crossroads: Some ten years ago, we celebrated its power to connect people, to enable them to fight against any form of oppression. Today, the main focus is on how it can be used to manipulate societies and elections in free democracies, spread hate or „Fake News“ or make people addicted.

          I believe there are phases to new technologies. Major inventions from the printing press to mobile phones have brought both benefits and risks. The early phase of new technologies is often followed by a period of growing, reflecting and learning. That's the phase I think the internet is in now. One of the biggest questions to ask is what kind of internet do we want?

          And what is your answer to this question?

          I believe we don't want an internet that is out of control, where anything goes. And we don’t want an internet that is too tightly controlled, where people can’t express themselves. I believe we want an internet where people can speak up without spreading hate. Where communities can come together without interference or abuse. Where everyone can access the benefits of technology and know their privacy is protected. This is a critical question we face right now – because based on everything we have learned so far, this is when we will help set the right boundaries for the internet. Doing this well will take all of us working together – people, governments, the tech industry – so that we can determine what kind of future we’re building.

          You have critics from many corners right now: There is Apple CEO Tim Cook who uses every possibility to attack Facebook and Google to differantiate the company he runs. Then there are activists like Jaron Lanier, who published the book “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now”. How do you respond to them?

          Every day, Facebook helps people connect with friends and family, build community, and find and offer social support. The last time I was in Germany, I met Uwe, who started a Father’s Facebook Group that now has 25,000 members. A few months ago, one of the dads urgently needed a bone marrow donation, but the German donation bank had no matches. The Group encouraged its members to register as donors and a last-minute match was found that saved the man’s life. There are so many stories like these.

          There are other stories as well, that are not driven by helping each other.

          A recent survey of people on Facebook shows that 72 percent of people in groups in Germany say Facebook helps them find common ground with people they might not otherwise interact with. We will continue working to create supportive communities for everyone. We will also continue supporting the people who use our apps to create opportunities. There are 90 million businesses on Facebook – over 21 million here in Europe – the vast majority of which use our services for free. More than half of small businesses on Facebook in Europe have been able to hire more people due to growth in demand from using our services, making us one of the largest job creation platforms in the world. At the same time, people have raised questions about our business model. They worry about privacy given that our business is advertising...

          ...and many people argue privacy and your business model can’t go hand in hand.

          Showing people relevant ads and protecting their privacy are not at odds. We do both. We don’t sell people’s data or share personal information with advertisers without permission. Here's what we do: we use information in a privacy-safe way to allow advertisers to reach people who might be interested in their products. This helps make sure people see more relevant ads for things they might actually be interested in. It also helps small businesses that can't afford to buy broad reach media like TV ads or billboards reach people in a way that historically only large companies could. And most importantly, this model allows us to provide our services for free, which is key to connecting people everywhere. 

          Social media at the moment basically consists of free and ad-supported internet services. Facebook of course is no exception. Is that approach going to change? Do we have to expect that social media typically will be something we pay a monthly fee for looking forward?

          Our business model allows us to provide our services for free to everyone, particularly people who would not be able to afford a paid service. This is critical to giving everyone the opportunity to connect. We use information in a way that protects people's privacy to allow advertisers to reach people who might be interested in their products.

          The next big technological transformation is underway: breakthroughs in artificial intelligence will change every industry and have affected Facebook’s business already. How will your company and social media in general change because of that?

          Artificial intelligence already helps us understand the world better. Facebook’s AI systems describe pictures to blind people so they understand what’s in them. It helps us remove terrorist content and hate speech often before it’s reported to us. There are lots of opportunities to use AI for good, but it can also be used in harmful ways. So like any new technology, we have to make sure it’s designed to be fair and protect people’s human rights. We have much more to do, so we’re working with outside experts and supporting independent research in this area. We just announced that Facebook is investing millions of dollars to fund an artificial intelligence ethics institute at TU Munich.

          What is its mission?

          It will be academically independent from Facebook and explore questions about how AI can keep people safe, how to reduce bias in AI, and how it is influencing society. These questions will be a major focus for us in 2019 and beyond.

          Why’ve you chosen Germany and in particular the TUM as the location?

          The TUM is one of the top-ranked universities in the world in the field of artificial intelligence. Their work covers everything from fundamental research to applications in robotics to the study of the social impact of AI. Germany is a leader in creating ethical frameworks around AI – including the government-led Ethical Guidelines on Autonomous Driving – and working with other European institutions. We welcome Germany’s guidance on this important topic.

          What is the so-called next big thing in Tech?

          I'm really excited about virtual reality and its impact on our world. VR can teleport you anywhere to hang out with your friends and family. It can help patients manage their pain before and after surgery. We want as many people as possible to experience the benefits of VR, so we've created products like Oculus Go and Oculus Quest, the first truly immersive all-in-one VR product. VR will continue to be a major focus for us as we look to the future.

          Sheryl, you were Chief of Staff of former Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers, made the ad-business at Google successful, started at Facebook in 2008, when there were 100 million users only – now it has more than 2 billion users. Is there a new challenge at a new place that you could see yourself being attracted to?

          I am deeply committed to the work we're doing at Facebook in order to make our platform safer and better for people around the world. We have made progress over the last year in addressing our challenges, and I come to work every day excited about achieving our goals.

          The questions were asked in writing.

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