For anyone who plays the stock market — and I confess I do from time to time — the drama that unfolded over the past couple of weeks surrounding the Facebook IPO reminded me of the “give them bread and circuses philosophy” of the Roman Empire, except this time the Empire kept the bread. The whole thing is so, well…Facebook.
We should have seen it coming.
Facebook’s approach to its IPO was consistent with the way it has handled the personal data of its users since the site launched. In both cases, it seems the company’s leadership has pushed forward policies that are disproportionally focused on their personal enrichment at the expense of everyone else.
Let’s start with the IPO. Just days before Facebook went public — the third largest IPO in American history — they did that for which they are famous: Changing the rules of the game after everyone else has been on the field for several quarters. The company informed the Securities and Exchange Commission that it would release 25 percent more stock than originally planned. It also announced a price of $38 a share, which exceeded the initial estimated range of $28 to $34.
This maneuver put Facebook’s total value at $96 billion, a whopping 107 times more than the company’s 2011 earnings, and in the process they violated a fundamental principal of the IPO world. In setting the price of a new issue, historically companies have allowed folks some room to make a profit.
By early this week the stock was trading under $26 per share, some 32 percent below its original sale price. CEO Zuckerberg, meanwhile, did just fine. It’s estimated that the IPO made him a billionaire nearly 20 times over, but his fast money antics depleted the company of a kind of value it can never hope to recover.
Plus, if the company’s history with our personal information is any indication, we could be in store for a bumpy ride.
Facebook’s value proposition of connecting people and helping them stay in touch provides a target-rich environment for the mining and marketing of personal data. It’s a very powerful advertising platform.
By tracking a user’s every move, Facebook was able to get into people’s heads, and began a marketing revolution that was once unimaginable. You complain to your friends about an old gas grill and bingo! You’re served an ad for Weber grills. You “like” an article, product or service and suddenly your friends (and a host of advertisers) get the message. You are the target, customer, reviewer, endorser and/or marketer in just a few short posts. There’s nothing inherently evil about this. Lots of companies do it, and many consumers appreciate the deals they receive as a result.
There are those who feel that Facebook goes too far, however.
Late last year, the Federal Trade Commission accused Facebook of gathering more data about users than folks wanted to give or believed they were giving. According to the FTC’s summary of its investigation, the site took data that some users designated as private, including their list of friends and data they intended to be shared only with friends, and made it available to app makers and the general public.
Further, the FTC said that Facebook let advertisers gather personally identifiable information about its users, even after claiming for years that it did no such thing, when in fact the company gave apps makers access to nearly all of users’ personal data, including information the apps didn’t actually need to function.
In a blog post, Mr. Zuckerberg responded to the FTC order by saying the company had made “a bunch of mistakes,” and detailed improvements that Facebook already had made to its privacy protections. But were these really unintentional goofs? Or were they the logical result of a corporate culture built on the hacker’s delight of sucking up everything that is not locked down? (A banner on a building on Facebook’s new 57-acre campus in Menlo Park, Calif., calls it “The Hacker Company.”)
Privacy advocates were unconvinced and it seems the government wasn’t terribly impressed, either. As part of the settlement, the FTC required Facebook to submit to regular audits of how it collects and shares data for the next 20 years. Last time I checked, that’s a generation (how appropriate).
Facebook has made some positive moves to help users protect their privacy and identities. Last August, the company gave users more power to restrict who can view their photos, comments and status updates. This April, Facebook expanded its Download Your Information feature, which allows users to view what types of information Facebook is gathering about them. These decisions prove that when it wants to, Facebook knows how to give users the privacy and transparency they demand.
I would argue that the company must go much farther.
In the world of data, Facebook must do a better job helping consumers understand how the website collects personal data; what the company, its advertisers and partners do with all that data; and what users can do if they decide they no longer want to participate.
Mr. Zuckerberg has made his billions. An avowed workaholic, he must now set about the hard work of changing Facebook’s culture. Grabbing every byte of data and every nickel of value may work fine when you’re a young and arrogant startup, but in Facebook’s first two weeks as a publicly-traded company, its braggadocio and “he who makes the gold, rules” attitude has cost it billions of dollars in lost value. If users and shareholders continue to lose trust, even bigger financial damage could ensue.
As always, Facebook has promised to change. I hope Zuck and friends follow through on that promise. The company must learn to treat other people, their money and their data, with respect. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. As both an investor (I bought it at $27) and a person concerned with privacy, I hope Facebook learns this lesson quickly.
Image: GOIABA – Johannes Fuchs, via Flickr