Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Companies and the public interest

Rebecca J. Rosen has a piece in The Atlantic positing the question, "Is the problem with tech companies that they're companies?"

Rosen's thesis is that some well-known companies' professed ethos, whether it be Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's desire to foster community or Google's much-lampooned "don't be evil" (which may or may not be its actual company slogan any more, if it ever was), runs head-first into the modern consensus of a for-profit public corporation's purpose, which is to maximize profit for its shareholders.

Rosen's proposed solution to this conundrum, though, isn't much of a solution.

While she approvingly cites Stanford professor Rob Reich's comments about creating ethics committees to guide corporate boards of directors, the description of that work is that it would "[take] into account various values they prize". Meanwhile, she says elsewhere that "Reich believes that some sort of oversight is necessary to ensure that big tech companies make decisions that are in the public’s interest".

It's difficult enough to know who the amorphous "they" are whose values are to be taken into account. In Facebook's case, is it Mark Zuckerberg, his collective workforce, Facebook's shareholders, or some combination thereof? Rosen's (perhaps suitable) vagueness on this point, though, is merely a speed bump of a concern compared to the brick-wall obstacle of whether "their" values, whoever "they" are, really represent "the public's interest".

I'm not sure I trust Facebook any more than I trust Hobby Lobby to understand "the public's interest". Even with the best and least controversial of intentions — who can argue with "don't be evil"? — when it comes to turning intentions into actions, everyone prioritizes different values. Everyone claims to be opposed to discrimination, for instance, but what happens when one's sincere religious belief that same-sex marriage is immoral (and thus harmful to the public good) comes up against a same-sex couple desiring your company's services for its nuptials? Somebody is going to feel discriminated against, no matter what happens. How do you define "the public's interest" in this case?

You can't. Not yet, anyway. And this is just the most extreme example of "the public's interest" being a very, very difficult concept to pin down.

Ethics committees probably couldn't hurt as companies who are, wittingly or not, disrupting long-held habits and social constructs, struggle to define their paths forward while portraying themselves as good corporate citizens (and perhaps believing that, too). But none of us should be under the illusion that even the most painstaking ethics committee will be able to guide a corporation in "the public's interest" — because if this era has a defining conundrum, it is that even the public cannot agree on what "the public's interest" is.

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