In Detroit, Facebook COO urges internet regulation — but not too much

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Regulations for social media giants like Facebook should be revisited, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said Tuesday, but policymakers should be careful not to put American tech companies at a disadvantage to their foreign competitors. 

Her comments came during a Detroit Economic Club forum on small businesses amid the pandemic. They also came several months after the state of Michigan, the Federal Trade Commission and several other states accused Facebook of breaking antitrust laws by illegally buying its rivals to quash competition. 

In this Sept. 5, 2018, file photo, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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"There is real concern about the size and power of the tech companies. We understand that and we really believe the laws need to be rewritten," she said. 

"At the same time we hope that people understand that a lot of the tech companies that are the largest in the world are American companies, and that means we exist under American law. That’s a pretty good place to be, because some of our largest competitors are in China and they exist under Chinese law. I think it's important that we find a way to continue American leadership of the tech industry."

Sandberg was also asked about Facebook's role in democracy after rampant misinformation on Facebook and other social media platforms helped fuel falsehoods in the 2020 presidential election. 

"Elections, democracy, nothing could be more serious to us, to all of us," she said. "This was a challenging election, we've never been so polarized and then we had a pandemic where people didn’t even know how they could vote. It was the perfect storm."

She said the organization "learned the lessons of protecting our democracy from foreign interference" in the 2016 election, but pivoted to discuss the company's efforts to help register people to vote. Facebook registered 4.5 million people, she said, an effort that was "the largest of its kind anywhere in the world."

Facebook has come under fire since the 2016 presidential election, when it became clear that Russian agents influenced millions of Americans by spreading divisive content on the platform. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the company won't fact check political ads due to free speech concerns, but is considering changing how campaigns can reach different groups. The company also has a team dedicated to suspending fake accounts. 

The company has urged the U.S. and foreign governments to regulate their industry by adding requirements around harmful content, elections, privacy and data. But critics have noted that the company largely already meets the requirements they're asking for. 

The Detroit Economic Club event focused on the way small businesses are using the platform to weather a pandemic that has decimated communities over the last year. 

Female-owned businesses have closed at a higher rate than male-owned businesses amid the economic pressures of the public health crisis, Sandberg said, largely due to demands for childcare and housework. 

"It's a health crisis, it's an economic crisis, and it's a crisis for women," she said. "This gender divide is compounded."

She said she spoke to nine Detroit business owners Tuesday morning who have been using Facebook to reach customers while in-person shopping has been restricted, and said the company will be working with the Small Business Association of Michigan to implement a "boost" program that offers free business tools and advertising products for small businesses. 

"We know that small businesses are the very heart of their communities," she said. "When small businesses are hit, communities are hit."

Twitter: @rbeggin