Will Easton is standing on the 41st floor of a skyscraper on the Barangaroo edge of Sydney’s CBD, where he can enjoy spectacular views of the city.
From his vantage point, the managing director of Facebook Australia can take in the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. But employees are also amused by the fact they can look down at the growing campus of arch-rival Google (as well as the building that houses The Sydney Morning Herald newsroom) across the water in nearby Pyrmont.
After months of negotiations, Easton has agreed to an interview to discuss the rise of Facebook and its well-documented challenges. Easton and his Australian team of 120 moved into plush new Sydney offices two weeks ago and the mood is decidedly upbeat.
It’s a scene that is strikingly incongruous with the nightmare 12 months Facebook has endured in the media and with politicians and regulators around the world.
Last year, Facebook took blow after blow as it was accused of disregarding user privacy, enabling elections to be swayed and – as one report put it – repeatedly trying to “delay, deny and deflect” responsibility. The low point for the company was having its founder Mark Zuckerberg apologise before US Congress for fake news, foreign interference in elections and hate speech on the platform.
Just this week, Facebook’s global operations had yet another fight on its hands as popular US site TechCrunch claimed the company was paying teens to spy on their online activities, while legal action from US news outlet Reveal detailed instances of the social media giant appearing to dupe children into spending money on their parents’ account on games without permission. Facebook disputes these characterisations.
Yet despite its myriad problems, users still can’t get enough of the $US480 billion ($662 billion) behemoth and its products. This week, Facebook said it ended last year with a record 2.3 billion users, as it posted its strongest annual profit to date of $US22 billion. The share price remains down about 23 per cent since peak in mid-2018, after a 19 per cent single-day fall in July when executives predicted lower profit margins for two years, partly due to increased investments in security with additional staff to handle content safety.
Monday will mark 15 years since Zuckerberg started the social media platform from his Harvard dorm room in what has now become Silicon Valley lore. Zuckerberg has gone a considerable way towards achieving his lofty goal of connecting the world.
There is no doubt about Facebook’s financial success. But the anniversary provides a timely opportunity to ask an important question: has Facebook made the world, and Australia, a better place?
“Our core goal was to create a platform that has allowed people to connect to the people, communities and places that they care about,” says Easton. “Many of us are now connected to people, friends and content that we wouldn’t have been able to connect to historically.”
“In life and in business relationships really matter,” Easton says. “That’s really been the ethos of Facebook.”