Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s message for Davos about regulation

DAVOS, Switzerland — Sheryl Sandberg has done a lot of talking in recent days. So much so, in fact, that at Facebook’s reception in Davos, she circled the room joking with guests that she would have to listen rather than speak because she was losing her voice.

Sandberg was in the Swiss mountains on the latest leg of a European charm offensive — she’s also been to Germany and Ireland this week — designed to draw a line under a bruising 12 months for the company.

This time last year, no one in Davos had heard of Cambridge Analytica. We now know it was responsible for an eye-watering data breach, which set off a chain of Facebook crises which clattered into each other like a line of falling dominoes.

As Mark Zuckerberg’s most trusted advisor, Sandberg has taken her share of the heat for Facebook’s frailties. And she has struck a contrite note in at least three engagements here in the snowy surroundings of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting.

“We did not anticipate all of the risks from connecting so many people,” she told an audience at an event hosted by German newspaper Die Zeit on the sidelines of the main conference. “We need to earn back trust.”

Aside from pouring billions of dollars into security and safety, there are a couple of other ways Facebook is hoping to achieve this.

Firstly, Facebook is turning up the volume on the feelgood stories from its community of 2 billion users. As an example, the company hosted Armstrong Pame in Davos. Pame raised more than $500,000 through crowdfunding on Facebook to build a road from Manipur, his village in India, to the nearest hospital 100 kilometers away.

This “connecting people is good” message has been amplified by Facebook’s branding in Davos. Through the glass of the company’s temporary building in the Alps, signs read “Choose Love.” It’s a world away from the Russian disinformation that continues to plague the platform to this day.

Facebook’s pop-up Davos home.
Business Insider/Jake Kanter

The second Facebook trust-building exercise in Davos is perhaps more important for the heavyweight political and business delegates walking the frosty Promenade. Facebook is letting the world know that it is ready for regulation — essentially, new rules that could dramatically change the way the $40.6 billion company does business.

Read more: Microsoft’s president says tech’s bruising 2018 has left scars that will result in US federal regulation as early as this year

“We are in a period of rewriting the rules of the internet,” Sandberg said at the Die Zeit event. It was a reference to all kinds of new legislation coming big tech’s way, including the very real possibility of US federal privacy laws and potential plans to crack down on hate speech in countries like the UK.

Privacy has been one of the major talking points of Davos, with tech firms recognizing that they need to rebuild trust in the way they manage personal information. Microsoft President Brad Smith told Business Insider that new regulation could come into force as early as this year.

Facebook accepts change is coming — but doesn’t want the rug pulled out from under it.

In an address at an exclusive Washington Post lunch in Davos, Sandberg suggested that Facebook will be lobbying for laws that fall somewhere between letting the internet run wild, and taming it to the point that it’s tightly controlled by regulators. “She made a point about protecting freedom of speech,” said a source in the room.

This is the new reality for Facebook, where lawmakers could be just as vital to determining the firm’s success as the advertisers who spend billions on its platform. Sheryl Sandberg may be losing her voice this week, but expect her to have a big say in shaping this new reality.

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