Facebook's Policy Team Steamrolled On FOSTA By Sheryl Sandberg's Personal Priorities
from the gone-political dept
We’ve discussed a few times the big NY Times article on Facebook employing smear merchants against its critics, discussing how disappointing, if common this tactic is, and also talking about how it’s a sign of a company losing its way. This has become even more pronounced as, following Facebook COO’s Sheryl Sandberg’s original denial of knowledge specifically around the question of smears directed at George Soros, it’s now been revealed that she both was cc’d on some of the emails from the PR company, and that she had directly asked for research on Soros’ views on Facebook.
But I wanted to dig in a bit more on a specific point mentioned briefly in that NY Times report, concerning FOSTA. As we’ve detailed for many, many months FOSTA was a disastrous bill that has made sex trafficking worse while simultaneously creating huge problems for free speech and for internet companies — including Facebook, which has already been sued under FOSTA.
What was notable, was that FOSTA was not going to move forward… until Facebook suddenly changed its position on the bill. Specifically, Sandberg suddenly became a vocal supporter of the bill, even as multiple policy experts at her own company had worked hard to stop the bill. At the time, it wasn’t entirely clear to me if this was purely a Sandberg thing, or if it was a decision by the wider Facebook executive team that they had to support FOSTA as a fruitless attempt to appear willing to compromise on something after getting beat up from all sides over its role in Russian disinformation campaigns.
The original NY Times piece briefly mentions the FOSTA situation (referring to the bill’s earlier SESTA name), suggesting that the decision here might have been driven by the smear merchant, Definers, angling for “positive content” about the company:
Definers had established a Silicon Valley outpost earlier that year, led by Tim Miller, a former spokesman for Jeb Bush who preached the virtues of campaign-style opposition research. For tech firms, he argued in one interview, a goal should be to ?have positive content pushed out about your company and negative content that?s being pushed out about your competitor.?
Facebook quickly adopted that strategy. In November 2017, the social network came out in favor of a bill called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which made internet companies responsible for sex trafficking ads on their sites.
Google and others had fought the bill for months, worrying it would set a cumbersome precedent. But the sex trafficking bill was championed by Senator John Thune, a Republican of South Dakota who had pummeled Facebook over accusations that it censored conservative content, and Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and senior commerce committee member who was a frequent critic of Facebook.
Facebook broke ranks with other tech companies, hoping the move would help repair relations on both sides of the aisle, said two congressional staffers and three tech industry officials.
However, in a more recent article from Bloomberg, talking about how many within Facebook feel that Sandberg has repeatedly made decisions based on her own political standing, rather than Facebook’s, the claim appears that Sandberg herself made the decision to go against the rest of Facebook’s policy position on this one:
Sandberg has at times focused on her own priorities over Facebook?s, the current and former employees also said. The COO is proactive when thinking about interpersonal relationships and messaging campaigns. Each winter, before the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, her team prepares a binder of all the people she might meet and what they might ask her. She uses this tactic throughout the year. But that kind of analysis ? of what might occur before it happens ? wasn?t as thoroughly applied to assessing risks to Facebook and how the company might be run differently, the employees said.
Around the same time Sandberg made the trip to D.C. in October 2017, Facebook and the broader technology industry were preparing for a battle over an important piece of legislation. The bill, meant to address child sex trafficking, also increased internet companies? liability for content users posted on their services. Facebook?s policy team argued against the law. But then Sandberg got involved. After she was personally lobbied by women in Washington, she decided Facebook should support the legislation, according to people familiar with the matter. The surprise shift crippled the industry?s united front, and the bill passed.
The episode prompted questions among some Facebook staff over whether Sandberg was putting her own politics and relationships ahead of what was best for the company, according to two of the people.
That appears to be Facebook policy people telling the world that they knew that FOSTA would be terrible for Facebook and the wider internet, but Sandberg decided to support it… and got what she wanted.
And, of course, this also gives weight to the rumor I heard from multiple smaller tech companies, who believed that Facebook changed its position because it would harm them relative to Facebook. I specifically heard execs say they believed Facebook did this because “Facebook can handle the liability of FOSTA, but most of its competitors cannot.” Or, as the head of Definers apparently believed, a good political move is to do something that damages your competitors…
While this is perhaps not out of the ordinary, it’s quite disappointing and incredible that Sandberg’s personal priorities may have been a key factor in passing a terrible bill that has already put lives in danger, free speech at risk, and harmed many internet companies through increased liability (including Facebook).