Facebook: now open for public scrutiny

Facebook’s now-public status may encourage its board and policy staff to respond to privacy, free expression concerns.

Suits, regulators await Facebook on charges of select disclosures
Facebook's now-public status may be good for its policies as its board and policy staff may be more inclined to respond to privacy and free expression concerns on the platform [EPA]

San Francisco, CA – Much has been said in the wake of Facebook’s decision to go public. On May 18, the company kicked off with a stock price of US $38 per share, and a valuation of roughly $104bn, marking it the biggest opening ever for a technology company and sparking varied reactions, from those mocking the high share price to those with faith that the company will be able to monetise and succeed.

And yet, just a little over a week later, the newswaves are cluttered with stories of lawsuits accusing Facebook of allegedly making “untrue statements” about its financial performance, as well as stories of disgruntled small investors. Now, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is reportedly investigating what appears to have been, on Facebook’s part, an overestimation of the company’s value in the days leading up to the IPO. While Facebook apparently informed major investors, they failed to disclose the information to the public.

Given Mark Zuckerberg’s desire for a more transparent world, Facebook’s latest error is just one more addition to the company’s history of contradictions.

Public policy, public power

In the runup to Facebook’s IPO, Zuckerberg wrote a letter to investors in which he stated that, “By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible.” Though the connection was subtle, critics pointed outthat Zuckerberg’s comment appeared in sharp contradiction to previous statements about the Arab Spring made at 2011’s G8 Summit, in which the CEO stated that Facebook was “neither necessary nor sufficient” to cause the revolutions sweeping the Middle East.

Facebook has, in general ‘encouraged its users to accept greater and greater losses of privacy.’

– Steve Coll, New Yorker op-ed writer

But while Zuckerberg’s more recent comments could easily be seen as an effort to impress investors, there is more at stake to them than mere dollars. Despite Facebook’s contributions to the Egyptian and other uprisings, the company has notoriously refused to allow pseudonyms on the site, putting at risk some of the very activists they claim to support (including, most famously, Wael Ghonim).

Facebook use is nonetheless growing in the region: The number of users has grown from 19 million at the end of 2010 to 43 million today, and Arabic is the fastest-growing language on the site. Whereas blogs were once the standard, Facebook has – in many countries – taken their place.

Says Katherine Maher, a fellow with the “digital freedom” group Access:

“Traveling around Tunisia, I kept being introduced to bloggers… [but] it turns out very few of them were actually blogging … Instead, the ‘bloggers’ were people who were active on Facebook… People are on Facebook not because they prefer it for any ideological reason, but because it offers the ability to reach the right people, with minimal effort, and maximum replicability.”

And although the company has taken measures to improve user safety on the site, some of those decisions have led to risks for users. For example, a 2009 decision to change privacy rules resulted in the publicising of users’ “friends” lists, exposing activists to danger – even the activist who covers his virtual tracks from government spies by using anonymising tools is still at greater risk when his friends are known to the world.

Facebook shareholders sue social networking site

As Steve Coll writes in a recent New Yorker opinion piece entitled “Why I’m Leaving Facebookistan“, Facebook has, in general, “encouraged its users to accept greater and greater losses of privacy”. The implications of this go beyond the activist set toward ordinary users and, ultimately, non-users of Facebook of well. Indeed, Mark Zuckerberg’s beliefs about privacy coupled with Facebook’s vast influence mean that the company has the power to shift privacy norms… and evidence indicates it already has.

In the letter, Zuckerberg also wrote: “We encourage everyone to make bold decisions, even if that means being wrong some of the time.” This approach, while great for a startup, could have disastrous consequences for a major social network with more than 900 users distributed across the globe.

Ironically, even Zuckerberg acknowledges the problematic aspects of Facebook’s power, noting his expectation that “over time, [governments] will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few.” If “intermediaries” is to mean “Facebook”, then the company is surely aware of their role in contentious times: Why not, then, more concern about their vulnerable user populations?

The quasi-public sphere as public company

Facebook has been referred to as a quasi-public sphere by those who acknowledge its ever-increasing role as the “town square”, and yet – as numerous critics have pointed out – it is actually more like a shopping mall, bound to private regulations. And yet now, as a public company propelling rapidly toward a goal of one billion users, Facebook will be facing increased public scrutiny.

Facebook has been referred to as a quasi-public sphere… [but] it is actually more like a shopping mall, bound to private regulations.

With that in mind, the company’s governance becomes ever more relevant. The fact, for example, that Facebook’s board consists solely of white men, is pertinent when one considers that 80 per cent of the platform’s users are located outside the US and Canada, not to mention its continued role in global movements. A more diverse board of directors might be inclined to consider, for example, the importance of online anonymity.

In a recent WNYC program, Rana Foroohar, a journalist with TIME, suggested that the problem goes beyond just the board, noting that work environments like Facebook’s are discouraging to women. Joe Nocera of the New York Times concurred, describing the environment of tech startups as a “young boys’ network”.

To that end, Facebook’s now-public status may be good for its policies. As Foroohar put it, “I think that larger companies, big multi-national companies that have to answer to shareholders… are probably more likely to get it right.” Indeed, now that more is – literally – at stake for Facebook, its board and policy staff may be more inclined to respond to privacy and free expression concerns on the platform.

Jillian C York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.

Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork