In between the pithy encomiums in her speech to the Class of 2018 at MIT’s commencement last week, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg squeezed in an apology of sorts.
“It’s painful when you miss something, when you make the mistake of believing so much in the good you are seeing that you don’t see the bad. It’s hard when you know that you let people down,” she said.
Sandberg was making an oblique — very oblique — reference to Facebook’s recent breaches of user privacy and apparent flouting of employment discrimination law.
But in a different world, here’s what she could have told those MIT graduates in her commencement address. In fact, let’s take a moment now to imagine a few new quotes:
“With a nod to the civil rights crusaders of the 1960s, who fought for equity in all domains of American life, Facebook intends to realign its advertising policy so it is in compliance with the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. In December, the Communications Workers of America filed a class-action lawsuit that accuses us of discriminating against older job seekers by allowing companies to micro-target help-wanted advertising. Just last month, the union ratcheted up pressure by adding hundreds of companies — like Amazon, T-Mobile, and Ikea — to the case, Bradley v. T-Mobile. Yes, the language in the lawsuit really stung: ‘. . . in search of greater profits, Facebook has turned its powerful ad platform into a conduit for age discrimination. . . .’ I am here to say that Facebook plans to comply with the law of the land. I apologize.”
She might have continued: “Yes, I know my boss, Mark Zuckerberg, told Congress in April that Facebook didn’t know that an app developer named Aleksandr Kogan sold data for 87 million Facebook users to Cambridge Analytica. I know he contends that we’re technically not in violation of the 2011 Federal Trade Commission consent decree — the one where we vowed sweeping reform of data-sharing policies.
“I am here to say that Facebook plans to work closely with FTC investigators to protect our most important resource: you, our users. I apologize.”
Right now, this alternative commencement speech is a fantasy. And to be fair, Sandberg alone didn’t foment Facebook’s scofflaw culture, and she alone can’t fix it.
But users should demand that Facebook step up its efforts to comply with an agency charged with protecting consumers, and abide by longstanding laws that give working people a fair shot. That way, by the time the members of the class of 2019 file in to collect their sheepskins, the script and the speech will be different.