Role of Sandberg comes into question
Facebook COO has been key to creating success
SAN FRANCISCO — The escalating crisis over Facebook’s handling of users’ personal information has some people asking: Where was Sheryl Sandberg?
Mark Zuckerberg’s second-in-command runs Facebook’s operations and oversees its advertising business, placing her in a nearly unrivaled role of responsibility when as many as 87 million Facebook users had their data siphoned by Cambridge Analytica, a British firm with ties to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“Sheryl did an unparalleled job, the best any person has ever done in any company at creating a business,” said David Kirkpatrick, author of the Facebook Effect and founder of the Techonomy conference business. But the lack of vigilance over security and privacy has imperiled that success, he said.
“If Mark hired her to set policies, something went wrong, because the policies didn’t get set,” Kirkpatrick said.
Scrutiny will only intensify as the Federal Trade Commission investigates whether Facebook violated a 2011 agreement to get permission from users before sharing their data, U.S. lawmakers draw up legislation that could restrict what the company does with that data and stricter privacy laws go into effect next month in Europe, says Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser.
“It’s hard to imagine that for all of the operational problems they have had that there wouldn’t be more scrutiny on whether or not there are company-wide risks the board needs to involve itself with,” Wieser said.
Sandberg, who declined an interview request from USA TODAY, did not accompany Zuckerberg last week when the Facebook CEO testified before Congress. But for the past decade, the best-known No. 2 executive in American business has been by his side.
Their partnership has been held out as a model of Silicon Valley success — the business veteran working hand in glove with a less experienced founder to build a hugely successful business that generates billions of dollars by getting people to open up about their lives.
For Sandberg, Facebook elevated
her profile in the business world and served as a springboard to becoming a household name as she opened up about her own life in two deeply personal books, Lean In, a bestseller championing women in the workplace, and Option B, a meditation on love, loss and resilience after the sudden death of her husband Dave Goldberg in 2015.
“At this point, it’s hard to imagine Facebook without Sheryl,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post last month on her 10-year anniversary with the company. Calling her “a great friend and partner,” Facebook’s co-founder and CEO wrote: “I know we face many difficult challenges, but there’s no one I trust more to work through this with.”
The most difficult challenge so far: Cambridge Analytica. After long days and late nights hunkered down with Zuckerberg while the public fumed, Sandberg hit the interview circuit in recent weeks to apologize for Facebook’s lapses. Inside Facebook, Sandberg is running point, marshaling company resources and assembling SWAT teams, to make good on promises Zuckerberg has made to Congress and Facebook users.
In 2014, some 300,000 Facebook users downloaded a personality quiz app, This Is Your Digital Life. The researcher behind the app collected data not just on those users but on their Facebook friends, too, and then passed that data on to Cambridge Analytica. Facebook failed to alert individual users that their data had been improperly harvested until last week.
The Facebook platform that allows software developers to reach Facebook users does not fall under Sandberg’s area of responsibility. But the Cambridge Analytica crisis erupted as Facebook’s advertising business was already taking fire for allowing Russian operatives to target ads using fake accounts during the presidential election in an effort to sow political discord and sway voter opinion.
In a series of interviews, Sandberg took responsibility for failing to ensure that Facebook operations had enough staff to protect users’ privacy. “On the things we didn’t do that we should’ve done that are under my purview, that’s my responsibility and I own that,” she told BuzzFeed.
But she’s also been quick to point out that the leak of Facebook user data to Cambridge Analytica was not connected to Facebook’s advertising business. And she has defended the business which relies on the mass collection of Facebook users’ data, saying it benefits consumers.
That message may not be resonating with Facebook users who, after years of shrugging off privacy concerns, have begun wondering if surrendering their data to the giant social network is too high a price for online access to their friends.
A survey of 1,000 Americans during the first week of April by technology research group Creative Strategies found that 9% had deleted their Facebook profiles and 35% said they were using Facebook less frequently.
“The bottom line is, if you had to pick any one person responsible for creating the circumstances that led to this situation, it is Sheryl Sandberg,” Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo said.
The advertising engine hatched in the early days powered Facebook’s initial public offering in 2012 and turned Facebook into a must-buy for advertisers.
Today Facebook makes nearly all its revenue and profit from advertising and has a market value of $478 billion, the sixth-largest in the S&P 500. With Google, Facebook effectively has a “digital duopoly,” controlling 56.8% of the online advertising market, according to eMarketer. Facebook’s U.S. revenue from advertising is expected to jump 17% to $21 billion this year, the research firm says.
Before moving to Silicon Valley to join Google, Sandberg served as chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers during the Clinton administration when she was 29. Over the years, she has developed a vast social network that bridges technology and politics.
With the prospect of regulation looming, Facebook is fortunate to have a leader who knows the capitol corridors so well, says Michael Useem, professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
“For a long time, Facebook was not in the cross hairs of Washington,” Useem said. “But now it is.”