Today, with the advent of its much-anticipated IPO, Facebook, Inc. will be “going public.” From a legal and regulatory point of view, that’s a significant change, bringing for example new requirements for financial transparency. But what does it imply from an ethical point of view? The phrase “going public” here is somewhat misleading. The event doesn’t do anything as dramatic as changing Facebook from a private to a public entity. It simply means that shares in the company will now be available to members of the public, and traded on the publicly-accessible stock markets.
Regardless, many people already do think of Facebook as a “public” institution in some sense. They think of corporations in general as public institutions, with public responsibilities beyond just keeping their noses clean. The very act of incorporation, after all, requires a framework of public laws to enable it, as do key aspects of modern incorporation such as limited liability. The view here is that if the public allows, and indeed enables, incorporation, it has the right to expect something in return.
However, it’s generally misguided to think of corporations as public entities, at least as this applies to corporations in general. Corporations are private entities, ones that play a role in an overall system—namely, the market—which arguably exists to promote the public good in some sense. But to infer, from the notion that the market has a role in promoting the public good, the further notion that each corporation exists for that purpose, amounts to committing the ‘Fallacy of Division’—that of assuming that the parts of a system necessarily share the characteristics of the system as a whole.
So Facebook isn’t, just by being a corporation, an instrument of the public good in any grand sense, and it won’t become one when it “goes public.”
On the other hand, Facebook is not a corporation just like any other. As I’ve argued before, there’s reason to think that a company like Facebook—public or not—has special obligations due to its role as a piece of communications infrastructure. It is such an integral part of so many people’s social lives and patterns of communication, and it has so few real competitors, that I think it is in some ways more like a public utility than like a private company.
From that point of view, the idea of Facebook going public is slightly more interesting. Because this quasi-utility is about to face a new set of pressures. Its managers (especially CEO Mark Zuckerberg) will now be beholden to a greatly expanded constituency of shareholders. Of course, Facebook has long had shareholders, but they were far fewer in number. And those early shareholders were also different in terms of expectations and levels of patience. People who get in on the ground floor of a tech company like Facebook are speculating in a very significant way. They may have big dreams for their stake in the company, but they are less likely to demand growth on a quarterly basis the way shareholders in a widely-held company are likely to do.
The new wave of shareholders are likely to insist on ever-growing profits—this at a time when many people are expressing doubts about the company’s room for growth. How well the company will treat its customers in the face of such pressures is yet to be seen. For example, there are surely lots of ways for the company to make money by selling the right bits of the vast trove of information it currently has about its roughly 900 million users. Will the company sacrifice your privacy in pursuit of profits?
For better or for worse, the company may well be able to resist such temptations, because of the way control of the company is structured. As has been widely noted, Zuckerberg will still exercise nearly unfettered control. He will retain over 50% of voting stock, making him the controlling shareholder in addition to being both CEO and chair of the board. Whether that’s good or bad depends on how he exercises that power, and for what goals he aims. He has, for instance, publicly disavowed profit as a primary motive, saying, “We don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.” This implies that Zuckerberg might not sell your private information just to make a buck. But—who knows?—he might conceivably do it for other reasons. Or it could be that Zuckerberg’s profits-be-damned approach will act as a check on what might be seen as the baser impulses of the investing public. And if his own ambitions stray too much from the public good, then hopefully the ‘discipline of the market’ will act as a check on the tech visionary himself.