Current Events, Industry Insights, Kevin Sharer, Outside the Bubble, Technology

A Letter to Facebook’s CEO

Prof. Kevin Sharer

Dear Mark,

You founded and built Facebook into a global colossus in a remarkably short time.  You conceived of a need to allow people to connect easily, quickly everywhere and at virtually unlimited scale.  You recruited the team to help you, made adjustments along the way and in the process built a commercial juggernaut with a market capitalization approaching $500B and $16B in annual net income.  You did this with no real training in business, with no strategic partners and in a category that did not even exist when you started. Your product has been given credit for spreading freedom, helping bring down despots and bringing friends and family together.  That you have two billion worldwide users and are growing gives testimony to the power of your idea and your ability to implement and evolve. All this has happened with very little regulation or any constraints on your ability to operate. Your core idea was to connect people and make information about them widely available.  An important assumption whether implicit or explicit was that the personal information you hold about your users would not be used for harm in any widespread or important way. Congratulations on a remarkable achievement!

However, you find yourself today in a very different spot than you ever expected.  Your product has been widely accused as a vehicle to bully, a conduit for low to no real fact checked information designed to inflame or confuse, an ecosystem where the developers so assiduously courted can tap into the system and without user permission or knowledge have information extracted that is then used in questionable to illegal ways to target them politically and in so doing bring election integrity into question.  The list goes on. But there is no doubt that the benign days are over, and you need to do something or your entire business will be at last seriously regulated or even worse your users will lose trust and leave. You know this is a pivotal time and have made public statements and taken some steps to fix the most egregious privacy and fake news aspects. You even had your lead director, the universally respected head of the Gates Foundation, put out a statement of unqualified support.  Yet you are described as “serenely arrogant” and a fellow innovator who should be biased to support you very publically pulls his companies from your service. There is also a growing chorus of negative media comment and ominous signs from governments about your firm and its practices. It is time to step back, get on the balcony and think harder and with less defensiveness or denial. You also need to hear informed objective and experienced voices. You live in an ecosystem that has a tendency to spawn acolytes and sycophants, so do not imagine you will hear any truly objective views from your day to day or Silicon Valley based colleagues.  That clearly includes your board based on their unnecessary and incredibly weak message “on your behalf.” Any CEO who thinks they need or benefit from a board public message of support is being naïve or delusional. Your CNN appearance also did not help as you appeared tentative and defensive in making statements about evaluating potentially thousands of apps that may have already misused your user data.

So, what to do?  First tell your able number two to run the company to free you to reflect and think.  Decide who will be the very few people you will recruit to help. Be sure one of those people is experienced, unbowed by you and does not need nor want anything from you.  A real truth teller who has been there. Next decide what you are really trying to do, eg preserve our current model with minimal changes; prevent regulation; limit reputational damage; change fewest things possible, etc.  This appears to be your current strategy. Are you willing to consider a view about where you are as a media company whom more people in the world depend on for news than any other source, a surveillance capability of unprecedented scale and power, a force when ill-used can cause serious societal damage, and a harvester of personal data used in ways the users really do not have a full understanding about?  We could probably create a third situation to contemplate but the point is you need to have real clarity on what Facebook actually is and where it sits in commercial, regulatory and societal influence contexts. Should you stick to your current stated view it might fall to others to fix Facebook. Hopefully you will take the most realistic and aggressive view and address the toughest questions which must include: (1) how can we best give transparency and control to users over their data and its uses, eg. would we allow users to deny us access to data and pay to have no messages or ads targeted to them or even control over what we can send them. (2) How can we stop giving outsiders access to data with more than weak and ineffective rules?  (3) How can we bring journalistic and editor based review of our “news” and not hide behind obscure algorithms. (4) What regulation do we think is needed and smart and do we cause it to be adapted or do we let others define it and we fight or engage? (5) How do we engage outsiders to assess and support the actions we take in this period of transition so we can be seen and in fact are objective and transparent?

Mark, the big idea is to look very objectively outside in rather than inside out.  Your current approach does not embrace or address the fundamental questions. You need to be more ready to take a new look and change before you have to change.  If you do not do this someone else will with suboptimal consequences for you, the firm, and your users. You should lead that effort rather than waiting for someone else to impose the answer.  The time is now.

Harvard Business School Professor Kevin Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for twelve years and before that Amgen’s President for eight. He has served on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is currently on the board of Allied Minds. For a decade he was Chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.

April 9, 2018
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