Donald Graham served on Facebook’s board of directors from 2009-2015. He was formerly the publisher for The Washington Post between 1979 and 2001 and chairman of The Washington Post Company.
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Dana Priest conducted on September 11, 2018. It has been edited in parts for clarity and length.
Why were you attracted to Facebook and Zuckerberg? Can you tell me about your first meeting if you remember it?
I remember it vividly. I met Mark in January 2005. Facebook had sprung up at Harvard in April 2004, and it’s an important part of this that I had never seen it. I couldn’t, because you had to be a college student to go on Facebook. But The [Washington] Post had written about it. Newspapers all over had written about this amazing site that had captured the attention of college students at Harvard and then on other campuses.
One of Mark’s classmates was named Olivia Ma, and [she] was the daughter of a wonderful man named Chris Ma, who was one of half a dozen people who reported to me at the company, who had been the editor of WashingtonPost.com. And Chris and Olivia talked, and Olivia said, “Dad, this amazing classmate of mine is coming to Washington; you should meet him, and he should meet Don.” So one day in January of ’05, I sat at a table with Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker – Justin Timberlake if you’ve seen the movie [The Social Network].
I said: “Mark, you know I obviously haven’t seen Facebook. Tell me about it. Tell me what its appeal is.” And he described it for a bit, and it was a most interesting conversation for a couple of reasons. I have four children, and Mark is two years younger than my youngest, so I had a rich experience of people 20 years old. I had known many very shy, very awkward 20-year-olds. Most 20-year-olds put around adults they don’t know are pretty shy and awkward. Mark was the shyest, most awkward 20-year-old I had ever seen.
When I asked him a question, if I managed to ask him a question that somebody had not asked him a thousand times, there was a long pause, and I would think, did I insult him? Did he not understand me? But he was thinking. I’m from Washington, and I’m not used to people thinking when you ask them a question. I’m used to them belting out the answer right away. But Mark was thinking about the subject before he answered. I found that interesting.
He showed a lot of things in that first meeting. One was – I also went to Harvard, and I was in a class exactly 40 years ahead of Mark. I was the class of 1966. Had he stayed, he’d have been in the class of 2006. One of the questions I asked him was what percentage of the students at Harvard are on Facebook, and I think he said 99 Percent, to which I said, “Well, there goes The Crimson.” I had been the editor of the daily paper, and I thought to myself, that means everybody at Harvard is on a website where the people that put the class ring ad in The Crimson and the pizza parlor and whatnot would have a much better advertising medium. And he laughed at me.
He basically said, “Well, we could of course stop and try to pick up that little bit of revenue, but what really interests me is getting to other colleges before somebody else can establish a website that becomes so popular they win.” So that was my first exposure to how long-term-minded Mark was and to his willingness to forgo revenue in the short term to build a different kind of business in the long term.
Were you already thinking that you would like to go into business or join him in his endeavor because of his long-term thinking?
I sat and listened, and having had no such plan when we sat down, after 20 minutes I said, “Mark, I think this is the best business idea I ever heard,” and I said, “In the end, you will not do this, but if you wanted an investor who’s not a venture capitalist, we would be glad to invest in your next round.” Now, there was one person who did want an investor who wasn’t a venture capitalist, and that was Sean Parker, who had some negative feelings toward venture capitalists because of some businesses he’d been in. But as I’d expected, Mark went back to Silicon Valley, where any VC firm would have bid three times what we did for reasons that have to do with the nature of VC firms.
And that happened, but Mark, I was most impressed with the way Mark handled the negotiation. We had close to reached a verbal agreement. Nothing had been signed, and nothing had been done that anybody would think was legally binding, but Mark called me one night and said, “This firm has offered me well over twice what you bid, and I think I ought to go with them.” But he said, “I think I have a moral dilemma, because I really told you that I’d like to do business with you,” and I said, “Yeah,” and we talked about it, and I asked him why he needed the money, and he had a very good explanation. And I wound up saying: “Well, I’ll resolve your moral dilemma. Take their money and good luck.”
But I thought to myself, that’s pretty good for a 20-year-old. That’s unusually decent. He didn’t just take the money and have somebody call me or send me an email or something. He called to explain the whole thing, and I quite admired that.
So did you have no hard feelings at all?
In no way. I mean, when you try to buy a share of a business, if somebody bids three times what you do, you’re not going to get it, and I understood that. I knew that I could raise my offer, but I knew that if I did, they or some other VC firm would bid even more. It was worth more to them than it was to us, because if Facebook proved a success, then that VC firm would be the VC that backed Facebook, and that would bring prestige.
We weren’t going to raise another round and do a next fund [like] a VC [would].
At that time, even in the very beginning, especially at the very beginning, he had this “Move Fast and Break Things” motto.
I didn’t know that, but I believe he did. Sometime he did.
I don’t think of you as that kind of person. So you are in some ways opposite.
Well, the newspaper business that I was running had nothing whatever to do with the business that Mark was running except where they intersected, which was in new technology on the web. And I saw immediately, I saw that Mark knew lots and lots more about technology than I did, but that could be said of everyone under the age of 25, so that wasn’t a great surprise. But I thought he was pretty damn good. I didn’t know how good he was because you couldn’t know that on a first meeting or a bunch of early meetings. But he – I watched over the years. We stayed friends after that first encounter. And I’ll tell you another story about Mark.
Facebook proved a big success right away, and again, right away all the people who could see it were college and grad school students and then high school students. Until I don’t know, 2006, 2007, other people were not permitted on Facebook. So I still wasn’t seeing it, but I was watching it, and I knew that Myspace was much, much bigger than Facebook, but Facebook was growing very fast and was really well liked by the people who used it. And sometime I think in 2006, Yahoo offered Mark a billion dollars for Facebook, which I think at the time had no revenue or almost no revenue, because – they might have had a trickle of advertising revenue, but it would have been nothing to the offer of a billion dollars.
And a lot of the people around Mark, the investors who put the money in his company, those VCs and a lot of his executive team, said: “Mark, take the money. Facebook may never be worth a billion dollars again.” And I talked to Mark a few months later, and he said, “This is something I believe in so deeply; I know it may be a big mistake, a crucial mistake, but I’m going to see what I can make of it.”
So with that in the background, I was out visiting my daughter in 2006, and the two of us – I called Mark and said, “Can I have dinner with you?,” and he said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Actually, there’s something that I would like to talk over with you, and I don’t want to do it at the office, so come to my apartment.” He gave me the address, and I came to his apartment.
So this is a guy who’s turned down a billion dollars for his company, and he lived – I was quite interested to see where he was living. He was living in a place considerably cheaper than my son’s dorm room in college, in a two-room apartment. He had three pieces of furniture – four actually. He had two wooden chairs; he had a kitchen table which may have been a fold-up, but it was just a wooden table with four legs; and a mattress. That was all the furniture in the apartment, which was three blocks from his office.
I immediately thought, well, what happens to the 21–year-old when he is running a company that’s now worth a billion dollars? I guess Mark’s not getting really carried away with this.
Why was he willing to sacrifice the billion? What was his vision that was worth that much money?
Well, he thought that Facebook had a chance to be much bigger than that. He had no idea how big it could be, and he thought it was likelier to fulfill that under his direction than under Yahoo’s direction. And in retrospect it looks like that was right.
Was there any other vision besides being large?
Yes, of course there was. From day one, Facebook’s stated purpose was to make the world more open and connected, and that is what Mark believed. He gave Harvard students and other students a way to be in touch, to be friends when they weren’t together, to meet when they weren’t physically meeting.
The most important word on Facebook to me is “friends.” You choose who will be your friends. If you say no to somebody else’s friend request, they’re never told you said no. If someone is acting horribly, you can drop them as a friend, and they’re not told you dropped them. You decide who your friends are just as you do, just as you did in college. And when you want to reach, when something happens in your life, when a relative dies, when they fail an exam, they may tell you; they may tell their friends, and then – you know something? I have family across the United States. I’m on Facebook because I enjoy it. I stay in touch with what my cousins are doing, what my relatives – I had a cousin in Florida who just ran in a political campaign down there, and I kept an eye on her campaign and what she was doing and what her kids were doing and what her parents were doing, all of whom I’m pretty close to.
Let me just ask you a present-day question. Do you still feel that that is the main point of Facebook, given everything that’s happened?
Of course it is. No one is on Facebook for any reason except that they find it pleasant to go to the site and see what’s up and see what’s happening with their friends and, if they care to, see what somebody’s saying in The New York Times or Breitbart or whatever news site they follow. Most intelligent ones, of course, are following The Washington Post.
Facebook’s Business Model
Why do you think Mark Zuckerberg wanted to stay in touch with you and eventually put you on the board?
Mark didn’t know that many older people, and Mark hired Sheryl Sandberg in 2008, which was a very interesting moment for Facebook. Sheryl was famous in the valley. I wasn’t in the valley, but I was a tourist and dropped by from time to time. I was interested in Sheryl because by then Sheryl was running two-thirds of Google’s advertising business. She knew every top advertiser in the country. She knew the top officials of every agency in the country because they came crawling on their hands and knees to Google to find out how it worked and how they should try to advertise on Google.
Sheryl could have gone to work anywhere. I know for a fact that she was offered CEO jobs at big companies. Any media company would have been thrilled to have her. And in fact, I had tried to hire Sheryl when she left the Clinton administration in 2001, when everybody in the White House knew she was this hotshot who was interested in a business career. And for some reason she preferred to go to this place called Google – obviously a big mistake on her part.
So Mark and Sheryl each called me when they were talking to each other just because I was a reference point for both of them. And I was fascinated that Sheryl, rather than taking any of the CEO jobs she could have taken – she was 38; she was a powerhouse – and she chose to go to work for a 23-year-old. That was brave of her, but it was also brilliant. She saw that the 23-year-old was building something and needed her.
And Mark was wise enough to reach out to somebody that he saw was a powerhouse, that he saw was not going to just do what I say. She was going to be strong, she was going to be very forceful, and she was interested in the parts of Facebook that were not first on Mark’s priority list.
What did Mark – what sort of things would he ask you?
Well, in our first conversation in 2005, it became clear that Mark, the future billionaire, the future CEO, did not then know the difference between revenue and profit. Way, way long ago, 2007, 2008, Mark asked if he could come “shadow” me for three days to see what a CEO did, and I picked three days when I was going up to make a presentation on Wall Street, ironically, which I only did once a year.
Mark tagged along, sat in the back of the room. I introduced him to a bunch of people, and nobody knew who he was. Well, a couple people knew who he was, not many. He wanted to see how the interactions went between people running companies. We were a tiny company relative to the other companies presenting at this media conference on Wall Street, Disney and Comcast and whatnot.
But he wanted to – he saw that he was somebody who had been writing computer code all his life, and now gradually he was going to have to run a business, so we talked a little about that over the years. But I’m not – I was of modest importance in Mark’s life. He would call me when he had some question that was related to the business that I ran. I wasn’t one of the thousand people closest to him.
But you have a huge influence in the new media environment and also as someone who has taken your values into the marketplace. You ran a company that was very civic-minded, engaged, aware of its impact in the world. Something goes on the front page, people –
Were any of those things as they grew part of the conversation?
Of course. There was always a crisis du jour at Facebook. It grew so fast that problems presented themselves that no one anticipated and no one could have anticipated. I can’t go back to the problems of 2009 and 2010 and recreate them.
Can you give me some examples of how fast growth, fast success leads to all sorts of things?
Well, for one easy example, someone in Hollywood decided to make a movie about Mark Zuckerberg, and Facebook and Mark called me for advice about how he should handle the movie. Mark then turned in his own shop for advice to Elliot Schrage, who was then running his communications team, who gave him the perfect advice, which is: “Don’t say a thing – not you, not Sheryl, not anyone at Facebook. Don’t say anything.” And it was exactly the right way to handle it.
But think of this: Mark was a very rich and famous 26-year-old, but he was 26. And let us suppose that you or anyone watching this program at the age of 26 had someone in Hollywood write a movie that begins and ends with women calling you an asshole, a movie that in essence portrays you as despicable. It is a cruel, libelous movie, and I think one day Aaron Sorkin, who is a great artist, will apologize for it.
Why was it good advice not to get in there and say that at the time?
Because it would have only have drawn more attention to the movie.
Can you think of another example of how its growth led to more questions it hadn’t anticipated it would have to answer? I’m thinking of the spread in the world. As a newspaper family, you’re out in the world all the time; you know the power that your platform has in the world to determine things. Did anything like that ever come up?
I’ll tell you a story from my first board meeting in 2009, although I never talk about anything that goes on in that board, but I’ll tell you this. To show you how fast the world changes, this was nine years ago. We sat down. We talked until the break, and one of the directors got up and said, “This is the first time we’ve talked this long in a meeting and no one has mentioned Myspace.” And I thought, yeah, of course. They’ve been preoccupied with this competition, which by 2009 Facebook had won; it was over. Nobody was on Myspace anymore, and that – no one remembering Facebook remembers that they started out as tiny against a giant, against what looked like a giant.
…I wanted to go back to the question of growing fast, especially overseas. Were there any questions you can recall when they were growing overseas in every country and in some countries that were obviously not democratic? Were you ever consulted about the ramifications?
They didn’t consult me, and I wouldn’t have had a clue what the future ramifications would have been. Facebook obviously was started by people who spoke English and started in the United States and Canada and other English-speaking countries. As a sign of the power of Facebook’s community, I was told – I don’t know this to be true, but I believe it to be true – that when they decided – well, they, still being a college-focused site – “We ought to try to expand internationally,” they asked their users to translate the site into their languages, and they did. And if somebody didn’t translate it correctly, the next user corrected it, and that is how Facebook wound up in Burma and 100 different countries.
When I was on the board, I remember one young friend was working on India, and painstaking – India is a country with a lot of tech-savvy people but in 2009, 2010 almost no bandwidth, almost no Wi-Fi. Newspapers in India were still growing in circulation in 2009 and ’10, so Facebook figured out how to get a rudimentary product presented not on smartphones but on old-fashioned flip phones, what they called feature phones, with a tiny screen or just a scroll. And people wanted it so badly.
…What I’d like to point out is that it’s often people look at companies and think, my God, these companies are all-powerful. When I was in college, the most famous professor at Harvard was a man named John Kenneth Galbraith, brilliant man and great writer, who wrote a couple of books about the immense power of corporations to shape the minds of consumers and to advertise to – there was a famous book at that time called The Hidden Persuaders [by Vance Packard] about the immense power of advertising to send messages you didn’t understand.
The corporations he was pointing out, he was using as the examples of dominant corporations, were General Motors, U.S. Steel, Chrysler, all headed for something like bankruptcy. And you know, sometimes these companies aren’t as powerful as they look, and when you look at the problems of the world, you tend to look at companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and think they must in some way be responsible. The world was full of problems in 2003 before Facebook existed. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq; Facebook didn’t have anything to do with that.
And that led to all kinds of problems and issues. So yes, bad people have tried to use Facebook and anything else they could get their hands on to influence people.
I’m going to take you one step further on that. Bad people in Myanmar in particular – that’s the most dramatic case – did use Facebook, and some of them told us that they came to Facebook to tell them about that.
I do not know one thing about it. I’ve never been there, and I wouldn’t – to get an intelligent comment on that, you’d have to talk to someone who’s been in that.
Can I ask you at that time, as a former board member, when the U.N. called out Facebook for having a role in the genocide, what was your thought at the time?
I didn’t know the facts, and like you, I would have wanted to learn what actually went on before I formed a judgment.
You got off the board in 2015, right?
So even then there was Russian disinformation in Eastern Europe.
Yes, you’re right. And if you ask me to pick one thing I think Facebook did wrong, it was not understanding that what was going on in Poland and Hungary would be tried in the United States. But that was a giant leap. It was sort of, for Facebook, what the Russians pulled in the United States in 2015 and 2016, I don’t know that I think it was – we ought to talk about its scope and its impact compared to others.
But it was in a way like 9/11. No one imagined that the Russians would arrange for the hacking of [Hillary Clinton campaign chair] John Podesta’s emails, at WikiLeaks as a convenient distribution platform for Putin, and to use advertising and information on Facebook. I have to feel that the importance of that might be slightly overstated, and I would make the following argument: The Russians bought $140,000 worth of advertising on Facebook. There may have been more, but that’s the number I saw.
We, in 2016, our company Graham Holdings owned five television stations. The smallest of those stations in Jacksonville, Fla., ran $2 million worth of political ads in Jacksonville. $140,000 of advertising was a drop in the ocean. Unless that was the most brilliant $140,000 ever spent on advertising, it couldn’t – and who else was buying advertising on Facebook? The Trump campaign, the Clinton campaign, the Koch brothers, [environmentalist and activist] Tom Steyer, the Republican National Committee, the Democratic National Committee, all of whom had people with [them] who were thought to be brilliant at using Facebook to deliver messages to targeted people.
In the first couple chapters of Bob Woodward’s book [Fear: Trump in the White House], Reince Priebus, then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, sits down with his candidate Donald Trump and he says to him: “Because we’re the Republican National Committee, we have information on every voter in the United States. We can tell you what make of car they drive; we can tell you what their faith is; we can tell you where their kids go to school; and we can tell you when and whether they voted in recent elections. That is information that Facebook couldn’t dream of having; that other campaigns can get it. Marketers can’t get access to that information; companies can’t get access to that information.”
But Facebook can get all that now with data brokers and with their –
Political campaigns can tell you who owns an American Express card; Facebook can’t. Political campaigns have access to data about you and me because they are nonprofits, because they are given a certain exalted status as political campaigns that American Express can’t [get]. And who owns an American Express card is thought to be important, because if you own an American Express card, you’re likely to be a Republican, believe it or not.
OK, let’s go back to Zuckerberg. Have you ever seen him in a heated argument?
Can you give me an example?
Some people ask if I ever saw Mark in a heated argument, but people who run companies like Facebook are in heated arguments with their peers, with their coworkers all the time. So I’ll tell you another couple of things that fascinated me about Facebook and that I tried to learn from. When I went on the board at Facebook in early 2009, Mark was I think 23, might have been 24. What was interesting to me was in the then rapidly growing Facebook, might have had 2,000 or 3,000 people, everybody was 23. Chris Cox, the head of product, was two years older than Mark. Mike Schroepfer, who ran the engineering function, looked like he might be a couple years older than Mark; I don’t know what his age is. And everybody else, with the exception of Sheryl, who was 15 years older than Mark, everybody else was in their 20s. You looked around and you said, “Who’s the highest-ranking 23-year-old in our company?,” and you quickly realized we were not giving young people a chance to exercise their talent in the way that Facebook was.
But one person who watched Mark with great interest in those years was Bill Gates, who himself had been the founder of a company. And I asked him once about whether he had tough arguments with the people who surrounded him, and he laughed at me and said: “Those obviously happen in every such company all the time, and you have to check your judgment, but as the founder, as the CEO, you’ve got to decide who wins. And if you’re not right about two-thirds of the time, you probably aren’t the right person.”
Have you ever seen Zuckerberg angry?
The thing that everybody will tell you about Mark who knows him – and again, I’m 73 years old; I’m obviously not one of the people who knows him best – Mark learns. Mark often runs up against a problem and says, “I don’t understand this.”
While he has been the CEO of Facebook with all the growth, all the problems, all the public controversies, he learned Chinese, and Chinese people say he learned it like a third-grader or something. Well, that’s a hell of a lot more than I know. He learns constantly. And in argument, Mark is not a screamer. Mark does not use his authority to make you feel small. Mark listens to the people around him. You know that he has strong feelings, but typically he keeps his voice calm, and when he makes a decision, he announces the decision without belittling anybody else or making anybody feel bad – as I’ve seen him. I don’t pretend to know what he’s like in private.
That isn’t the way of many founders. I don’t know if any of this is true, but Walter Isaacson wrote a very impressive book about Steve Jobs, which alleges that Jobs behaved, whom I admired enormously, behaved very differently to people in his immediate surround, was very tough with them.
Do you think the fact that Mark holds the amount of stock that he does – in other words, he’s the controller of Facebook, [which] makes him – is that a good idea for a company that he can’t be held accountable?
Well, in this case, it’s a very good idea, because otherwise Facebook could be taken over tomorrow.
Google or Apple, which have all the money in the world, and Microsoft would buy it, so Mark’s control of Facebook is, yes, it’s absolutely essential to Facebook’s continuing independence.
In that answer, you think he’s the one to get it out of the problems that it’s in today?
What’s important is not that I think that. You go do a survey of all the people who work at Facebook, all the people that worked there for more than five minutes, and you ask them whether he’s the person to get Facebook out of the problems it’s in today.
Anybody, any purported financial expert asking whether Mark Zuckerberg’s the right person to run Facebook ought to be in a different business. I’m not saying that Mark will solve every problem. I’m not saying that someone might not solve a particular problem better. But Mark – it is very, very unusual to find someone who can run a company the size Facebook was when I first met Mark and can run Facebook today. This is a very unusual young man. He is a very young man. He’s 34 years old.
There probably is – well, Evan Spiegel at Snapchat is younger, but there aren’t that many younger people running corporations, any corporations in the United States. If there are disadvantages to being young, Mark has those, but he has a lot of advantages, too.
The Facebook Culture
You mentioned the 23-year-olds that are at Facebook, and we were out there and kept saying, “Where are the adults,” you know? At this time, does Facebook – can you describe the culture? You come from a scrappy newsroom. This is has a different feel to it. Can you describe –
Well, I can describe it as a board member experienced it, but there are thousands of people better than me at describing the Facebook culture. But the culture compared to that of a conventional old corporation is – the word I would use is “open.”
You can ask anything. You can discuss anything. Mark has a conference room, glass-walled next to his desk, but he sits at a desk in the open. Originally he did that in a building where everybody at Facebook had a desk in the same office, and anybody could walk up to him, Sheryl or anybody else, and say, “Can I talk to you for five minutes?” Or they could walk up to his admin and say, “Can I book five minutes with Mark?” Ideas flow in. They’re tried. Most fail.
I don’t know if this is still true. When I was on the board some years ago, when a programmer was hired, they had a week’s initiation, and in that week they were told, “At the end of this week, you’re going to write code that’s going to go on the main Facebook site.” That is how rapidly Facebook was changing. Everybody was contributing to it. It drove people who tried to be their partners, as Donald Graham did, absolutely crazy, because it was changing constantly, and they didn’t always think, what’s this going to do to our partners? But they felt, we have to change because we want to try things, because others are trying things, because it’s a competitive world, and we’re learning things from the people who use Facebook about things they like and things they don’t like. It is a very different atmosphere.
And back in the day, I would imagine your view of it, did you see it as a media company then? Do you see it as a media company? Has that changed? Has your view of –
No, its –
– responsibility that it has?
They take more responsibility now. No, it is not a media company. People at Facebook are not reporters and editors. They don’t write stories; they don’t shoot television programs like this one.
They’re doing more Facebook-initiated video now than they did, but they don’t do much. Facebook is first and foremost a platform. But Mark and Sheryl have moved to the point where they’re willing to say, “OK, we are responsible for what other people put on our platform,” but it’s a difficult thing to say, because people are putting things on that platform in more than a 100 different languages in 100 different countries all the time live.
And what do you think is their responsibility since they are in 100 countries and they do have 100 languages and they are the main publisher of news? Not just friend news but actual news and fake news. What is the responsibility, then, if they’re not a publisher? Are they something close to that, where – ?
They’re not close to a publisher, and what their responsibility is will evolve. It’s evolving now. But when I was running Donald Graham newspaper or the television stations that we owned that are putting out news today, the editors of the Post sat around and talked about what stories are going to go on the front page of the paper, or now on the front page of the website.
They thought about those stories; they talked over those stories. If the editor of the paper was particularly concerned about a story, he could read an early version; he could read a draft as the reporter wrote it. You could try to read the important stories of the paper in advance and know what was going in the paper the next day. In other words, the editors of the Post had complete control. The management of Facebook has no control over what someone posts on the site.
I think I posted something on there yesterday. I can’t even remember what it was. They obviously had no knowledge whatever, and –
Is that a good thing?
To me it is. It’s called freedom. And the people – I am free to post things on Facebook. Facebook has now created rules that say – they have always had rules. For instance, you can’t put nudity on Facebook, but that’s rather easily caught by a camera. But now they have rules that say, wisely, you cannot advocate violence, you can’t break the law, and some other things. I don’t know. I don’t know everything they’ve said. I’m way out of touch with Facebook. But it is in the nature of a place like that that somebody will put something up; another person or conceivably one of the thousands of monitors Facebook has hired will take a look at it and say, “I don’t think this meets Facebook’s standards,” and then someone will have to make a judgment.
Regulating Big Data
Do you think there is a role for federal regulation of Facebook?
I think federal regulation will be tried and will probably prove destructive. I think any attempt at regulating these tech companies – and there will be such attempts; there are now in Europe – is likely to be counter-productive. It’s likely not to do what people think it will.
What it will do is slow them down. Let’s take Google as an example. Google competes with a lot of other companies, the biggest of which are Chinese. The Chinese versions of Google and Facebook have market caps, have size equal to Google and Facebook. I have been in regulated businesses, and politicians often use regulation to try to ensnare publishers – people who publish news they don’t like – in its toils. When Donald Graham was printing these famous Watergate stories in 1972 and ’3, we know from the White House tapes that President Nixon sat in his office and directed Charles Colson, one of his toughest aides, to go organize challenges to the television licenses Donald Graham held in Florida to see to it that Nixon’s friends challenged those licenses.
If Nixon had been re-elected, Donald Graham would have lost those stations, which were about a third of our company. So regulation can be used by politicians to favor people who say things they like and to punish people who say things they don’t like. Government regulation is not a bunch of experts sitting in a room looking at Google and saying what is just, what is fair. It’s a bunch of lawyers sitting in a room parsing words that someone in Congress wrote without a hell of a lot of thought and some lawyer then transformed into lengthy written regulations and trying to figure how they apply. And people at Google will be staring at those same regulations.
So that leaves it to Facebook itself to regulate, to change its behavior. Given what we learned in the last year or two about Facebook’s algorithms and about the microtargeting, about the willingness to work with really any government, why should we trust that they’ll do enough, and should there be maybe an independent audit of them?
I’m 73 years old. When I was 21, when I was the age Mark was when he started Facebook – I guess he started at 19 – there was one dominant, all-powerful company in the United States: IBM, the most profitable company, the biggest company in market cap, the company that just squashed all other companies that made computers. You looked into the future, and you said, “This company has it made forever.” Twenty years later, another company came along called Microsoft, and in the 1980s and ’90s, anybody who made a product related to personal computers, they had to have a Microsoft operation system on the personal computer, and that controlled everything.
Microsoft looked insuperable and invulnerable. Those companies still exist. IBM still exists. Microsoft still exists. They are very powerful, but they are no longer the overwhelmingly – and they’re not the same companies. They don’t have the same role. Microsoft no longer makes most of its money indirectly or directly through computer operating systems, and IBM doesn’t make mainframe computers anymore, I think. So Facebook and Google look very big today.
If the government of the United States does nothing, the odds are that in 20 years, unless they’re brilliantly managed, those companies will not be the major forces in the economy. Things change. General Motors is still an important company, but it once had a 60 percent share of automobiles sold in the United States. That hasn’t been true for many years. The marketplace changes business. Now, given the unpopularity of tech companies, it may be the government will do something. Just from watching government for 50 years, I would guess it is more likely that what government does won’t have the consequences they intend. We’ll have other consequences.
The major consequence if government tries to regulate Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google is it will slow those companies down, and it will favor their competitors, most of whom are Chinese. And if your primary concern is about your own privacy, do we want a world where the dominant web companies are tools of the Chinese government?
So let’s say they don’t regulate, and it is left up to the companies and specifically Facebook. Do you think that Facebook should do anything extra to show us that it guarantees it’s doing what it says it’s doing?
Oh, Facebook has done – all I know about what Facebook has done since the Cambridge Analytica business is what I see on my Facebook page, and what I see is dozens of actions, many of them very, very complicated. One thing I think many Facebook users don’t understand – I know I don’t understand it about Google – it is hard to run these companies. It is hard to get them to do the things they do.
When Facebook went public in 2014, something, the world was quickly going to mobile, from using a computer, using your laptop at home, and Facebook had no mobile advertising. There was no way for an advertiser to buy an ad on Facebook mobile. Mark Zuckerberg called the people he thought were the smartest programmers at Facebook, the best and the most respected into his office, and said: “You are doing mobile advertising. You’re going to create mobile advertising products. It is that important to the company.”
Within a year, an enormous percentage of Facebook’s revenue was on mobile ads. I have no idea what those people had to do. Having run a company that among other things used computers, I understand how hard that was. And changing Facebook in a nuanced sophisticated way is going to be very, very hard. The Facebook people understand the challenges to them. They understand that Facebook among other things has angered so many of its users. It will be thinking about those people, the people who sue Facebook, fairness to them, making sure that they can see the content, [making] sure that they can see what they want; that up to a point they can say what they want.
…There’s a worry about disinformation that people are losing a grasp on what is true and what is not true. And Facebook, because it’s such a dominant platform, plays a role of distributing the fake and the not fake and all that. Do you feel panicked about this at this moment, as many people do, that if we don’t get this right or if Facebook doesn’t get this right, we could really lose our grasp on the truth, and we could be further divided into left and right?
I’ve been in the news business all my life, and after more than 40 years in that business, on most major issues, I’m basically confused. I think it takes constant thinking to learn what is true, where it comes from, and people publishing news that’s not true certainly goes back to the Greeks. I can cite you examples from history of very important things that happened because of false reports. Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part 2 starts with a father hearing a false report that his son has won a battle and then learning a few minutes later that in fact he was killed.
It is hard to separate what’s true from what’s false. I think Facebook is wise to have realized that they’ve now got a big problem and that they’re going to try as best they can not to say, “This is true; this is false,” but to say to people looking at an item that someone has sent them, “Many people have challenged the truth of this, and here’s how you can learn more.”
Have you talked to Zuckerberg or Sandberg since a lot of this erupted, and can you share – ?
Very little. But, you know –
Do they feel under siege?
Oh, sure they do. They’re deeply – “under siege” may be too strong. They feel a great sense of responsibility for getting it right. Every year when I – when Mark invited me to be on the board, it was 2008, and I went out to interview the top people at Facebook, so I saw Mark, and he was wearing a tie, and I said, “What the hell is that?”
And he said, “Every year I give myself a personal challenge,” and his personal challenge for 2008 was to wear a tie to work every day. His personal challenges are odd. Some are serious; some are frivolous. One year, impressively, his personal challenge was to read a book every two weeks and discuss it with people on Facebook. One year his personal challenge was to learn Chinese. This year his first one – his personal challenge is to straighten out Facebook, to make right what people take to be wrong about it.
I see evidence of an enormous amount of change going on. I get notices from Facebook all the time: This is what is changing; this is now available to you to learn about your privacy settings, to learn about articles that are challenged. With all those changes, some of them won’t be changed in the right way, and they’ll have to change them back. But you know, all those things change. You used the word “algorithms” earlier. The algorithms on Facebook change constantly. People talk about they should publish their algorithms. Well, which week, you know?
If you look at the Facebook site that was there when you first signed up, whether it was a year ago or five years ago, you’ll be shocked.
originally posted on pbs.org