Interview: Don Graham defends Zuckerberg, rejects regulating Facebook

Don Graham could have made billions had Mark Zuckerberg honored the deal they made in 2005. As then-owner of The Washington Post, Graham offered $6 million in venture capital to the 20-year-old who’d developed an online service for college students known as Facebook. Zuckerberg initially agreed, then backed out when he secured a better offer (Forbes). 

Famously, Graham never held a grudge. In fact, he maintained a personal relationship with Zuckerberg after their deal fell apart. This likely helped him land a seat on Facebook’s board of directors years later. Since leaving Facebook in 2015, Graham says he communicates with Zuckerberg far less frequently than in the past. Yet he remains a fierce supporter of the social media mogul, even as Zuckerberg faces allegations of facilitating election meddling, ethnic conflict in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and other countries, and the purposeful deception of 2 billion Facebook users.

While technically a “former tech executive,” Graham admits he’s “out of his depth” in most discussions of modern technology. So when Graham authored a Facebook post defending Zuckerberg during his time of turmoil, he focused on an area he could speak about intelligently: Zuckerberg the person.

“Watching him close up, I came to believe he is someone of great decency and good character,” Graham wrote. “When daunting challenges arise at Facebook, Mark still listens and still thinks.”

Graham spoke with WikiTribune hours before Zuckerberg began his Congressional testimony on April 10. The growing perception of Zuckerberg as an American villain, he said, is a narrative spun from the “cruel” 2010 movie, The Social Network. Graham, who in 2013 sold The Washington Post to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for $250 million in cash, says he’s donated all but roughly 5 percent of his initial Facebook stock, and plans to donate the rest to education-based charities (Forbes).

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

WikiTribune: Did something in particular compel you to defend Mark Zuckerberg on your recent Facebook post?

Don Graham: I guess what led me to do it was seeing a lot of comments on stories on other people’s Facebook pages, comments of people I don’t know I should add. Not those that raise entirely legitimate questions about where Facebook is going, and where technology companies are taking us … but the online comments that [portrayed] Mark Zuckerberg as an evil person.

WikiTribune: Mark is quite a visible CEO. Is the personal vitriol he faces due to such a public role?

Graham: Well, he’s chairman and CEO of Facebook. I’m no longer an insider, but my guess would be that if you surveyed every employee at Facebook … they would almost all say that Mark is the right person to lead the company, and there’s no other person to lead the company. Why? Because you have to be technologically brilliant … which I myself am absolutely not … you’ve got to be a good business person; and you need to be able to lead and inspire a really remarkable team of people. … Mark can do all those things.

WikiTribune: As Facebook deals with controversy, some Silicon Valley pundits have brought up the need for an Eric Schmidt, someone who helped Sergey Brin and Larry Pace prepare Google for going public. Could Zuckerberg benefit from another experienced voice in the boardroom?

Graham: No. The voices in the boardroom include Reed Hastings, the creator of Netflix. Not a bad achievement. They include Marc Andreessen, who’s seen a little bit of water go over the dam in 30 years in technology. … They include Peter Thiel, who’s one of the first investors in Facebook. … and they include Cheryl Sandberg … who are all there to advise Mark.

WikiTribune: How would you describe Mark’s vision of Facebook as a product?

Graham: That’s the easiest question in the world to answer: Mark literally believes that the task of Facebook is to make the world more open and connected. And you could argue that Facebook has done that. What’s happening in my family today, what’s happening in the world today, what do people think about something? … Later today, there’ll be a lot of Facebook commentary: what did people think of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony?

WikiTribune: Should Facebook make more editorial decisions about content that’s shared to ensure an evidence-based dialogue?

Graham: No. N-O. If Facebook were to assume the job of looking over the shoulders of the editors of the New York Times and saying, “We’re going to re-edit that story,” I would say that’s outrageous. And so should I say, “Facebook should edit some stories and not others?” I find that hard to say. Should I say, “Speech on Facebook should be controlled so that people can’t say certain things?” I don’t see how speech on Facebook can be controlled, and speech on WikiTribune cannot.

WikiTribune: What about blatant misinformation, which can go rampant on the platform?

Graham: Mark has said that Facebook was too slow to understand the effects of sharing stories that were simply made up. That’s his view, and that certainly seems to be the case. Now, the question is what are you going to do about it? Having watched the Facebook team address challenging question after challenging question, my advice to the proverbial open-minded person, so hard to find these days, would be, “Give them six months and watch and see what they do.” Why? Because I have seen that team, that same group of people, address many other challenging problems.

I don’t know what will come from these congressional hearings. But I do know there will be changes at Facebook, know they will be thoughtful, and I want to see what they are.

WikiTribune: In light of possible regulation, Zuckerberg has promised changes. Do you see government regulations coming? What might those look like for Facebook?

Graham: I have a very strong point of view on that. … I can absolutely tell you two things. When people say “regulation,” it’s not a group of expert, impartial scientists or bureaucrats looking over Google or Facebook. Regulation in the United States is political. Regulators are appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate.

The regulatory appointees of President Obama could not have been more different from the regulatory appointees of George W. Bush, and could not be more different from the regulatory appointees of Donald Trump, and who knows who the next president will be. It might be Ted Cruz, it might be Elizabeth Warren. You have to ask yourself: “Do I want that person playing a role in what’s shown on my Facebook page or in the results of my Google search?” My answer is no.

Washington D.C. – where I’ve lived all my life – has never been, and never will be, a city with a sophisticated understanding of technology. It is the city in the United States where people understand Facebook the least. Why? Because public officials cannot use Facebook as I do, which is a personal Facebook page. You can have a Facebook page if you’re running for office, but only to repeatedly show how wise you are, how much in touch with people you are. …

So, technology is political. And if technology companies are regulated, I would argue they’ll inevitably be slowed down to the point where they will be surpassed by others. Who will those others be? Well, pretty good candidates would be Baidu, Tencent, and AliBaba, who are not regulated. And if you think your privacy would be better treated by those companies … I disagree with you.

WikiTribune: If government regulation is not an answer how can we ensure ethical practices are upheld, especially since Facebook faces few competitors, at least in the United States?

Graham: If you get mad at Amazon, it can be inconvenient, because Amazon already has your information … and you can buy something with one click. If you get mad at Google, you better find another search engine, which will be challenging.

If you get mad at Facebook, all you need to do is delete it. … On average, people go on Facebook to enjoy the experience. I go there to see what my grandkids are doing … to keep up with the people I used to work with at The Washington Post. If Facebook (upsets) a lot of people, they will stop using it.

WikiTribune: What about all the companies they own, such as WhatsApp and Instagram? Doesn’t this make it harder to escape Facebook?

Graham: That’s a good question, and there are countries where WhatsApp has enormous market penetration. … But we didn’t (use it) seven years ago. … And Instagram, I mean, does anybody have to go on Instagram? I don’t think so.

 WikiTribune: It almost sounds like “going off the grid” in boycott.

Graham: (Social media) is pleasant, but not necessary. Facebook existed since 2004, but non-college students couldn’t go on it until late 2006 (The New York Times). And the world was full of problems and challenges in 2004. There was both good and bad behavior in the world, political problems that were pulling us together, there were a lot of things drawing us apart.

Facebook has changed the world significantly. But people attribute too many huge problems to Facebook. I’m a little skeptical. I think many of those problems are human, and always existed.

WikiTribune: What do you think Facebook will look like in five or 10 years? 

Graham: The honest answer has to be: I don’t know. I think if you want to propose an intelligent answer to that question, you’d better be pretty technically focused. But I think it’s pretty reasonable to ask: Will Facebook exist in 20 to 25 years? That seems like a ridiculous question, but any intelligent (executive) is aware of the history of technology companies.

I think if you had talked to Bill Gates at the time Microsoft was emerging he would have said, “With the exception of IBM, tech companies don’t make it to a second generation.”

There are very few technology companies that have a 30-year run. … Yahoo, Google, these companies look mighty today, but the history of capitalism says they’re not all going to succeed indefinitely.

And as I mentioned before, I literally went to Google to find out what time Mark was testifying this afternoon. It’s 2:15 p.m. I needed to go to (Google) to find that.

But I go to Facebook because I expect to enjoy it. Mark’s greatest achievement is not that Facebook was created, but that Facebook is kept up. I think there were six people working there when I met him [in 2005]. Now, there’s more than 30,000, and he has been the right CEO with six people, and the right CEO with 30,000, and that’s a hell of an achievement. But, does that mean it’ll be the same in 20 to 25 years? Mark would be the first person to tell you the answer to that is no.

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