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‘A few’ advertisers have stepped back from Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg says

Facebook pauses ability to exclude ad targets based on race, ethnicity
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, shown last year, says advertisers are “asking the same questions that other people are asking.”
(Frank Rumpenhorst / DPA/ZUMA Press/TNS)

Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg outlined the ways she’s responding to a data-privacy crisis, saying for the first time that some advertisers have curtailed spending and acknowledging her team has a long way to go to reassure wary customers.

“We’ve seen a few advertisers pause with us, and they’re asking the same questions that other people are asking,” Sandberg said Thursday in an interview at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. “They want to make sure they can use data and use it safely.”

Sandberg said she is having “reassuring conversations with advertisers, just as we are with people,” about how Facebook has built privacy into its system. The company makes almost all its revenue and profit from advertising.

The social-media giant is reviewing products and data policies to find further ways to protect users from being exploited, after political consultant Cambridge Analytica obtained information on as many as 87 million Facebook users without those users’ permission. That crisis has led to broad questions about how Facebook treats users’ data. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg is scheduled to testify about the issue at congressional hearings next week.

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The company has come under scrutiny from regulators too. The Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether the company violated a 2011 agreement to get permission from users before sharing their data. Cambridge Analytica accessed Facebook data from a professor who got permissions from 270,000 people taking a personality quiz app. At the time, Facebook let people share information about their friends through these types of apps, but it stopped that practice several years ago.

That has raised the prospect of FTC fines, but Sandberg isn’t concerned. “I think we’re very confident that that was in compliance with the FTC consent decree,” she said, referring to the 2011 agreement.

In a wide-ranging interview, Sandberg discussed the company’s shifting responsibilities as Facebook thinks about what can go wrong with its network, after the Cambridge Analytica revelations. She said Facebook is drawing stricter boundaries around its work with certain advertisers and political campaigns too. The company has worked directly with governments that went on to use the social network against their people, and with advertisers that ran anti-Muslim content, for example.

Facebook will continue to work with political advertisers and will still aim to be “neutral” when assessing content — just more careful, Sandberg said.

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“If you were using hate-based language in ads for elections, we’re drawing those lines much tighter and applying them uniformly,” she said.


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