Saturday, August 10, 2019
Milton Friedman, shareholder primacy’s true north, wrote:
In a free-enterprise, private-property system, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct responsibility to his employers. That responsibility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to their basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.
Much judicial, political, and academic ink has been spilled over the first part of this pronouncement, but the second part has always baffled. What ethics? Whose ethics? How do we identify ethical customs that are not instrumental in generating higher profits (because if they were, there would be no need for the qualification; we would simply recognize that pursuit of profits may include pursuit of community goodwill because in its absence it may be hard to sell one’s product).
The recent tragedies in El Paso and Dayton have raised these questions anew. Cloudflare, which provides various website and internet security services, dropped 8chan (a breeding ground for violent white supremacist content and the site where the El Paso shooter posted a racist screed) as a client, thus knocking 8chan offline. In so doing, its CEO, Matthew Prince, explained:
We continue to feel incredibly uncomfortable about playing the role of content arbiter and do not plan to exercise it often. Some have wrongly speculated this is due to some conception of the United States' First Amendment. That is incorrect. First, we are a private company and not bound by the First Amendment. Second, the vast majority of our customers, and more than 50% of our revenue, comes from outside the United States where the First Amendment and similarly libertarian freedom of speech protections do not apply. The only relevance of the First Amendment in this case and others is that it allows us to choose who we do and do not do business with; it does not obligate us to do business with everyone.
Instead our concern has centered around another much more universal idea: the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law requires policies be transparent and consistent. While it has been articulated as a framework for how governments ensure their legitimacy, we have used it as a touchstone when we think about our own policies….
Cloudflare is not a government. While we've been successful as a company, that does not give us the political legitimacy to make determinations on what content is good and bad.
Two years ago, Cloudflare discontinued service to the Nazi site Daily Stormer. At that time, Prince said:
Now, having made that decision, let me explain why it's so dangerous…. Without a clear framework as a guide for content regulation, a small number of companies will largely determine what can and cannot be online. … Law enforcement, legislators, and courts have the political legitimacy and predictability to make decisions on what content should be restricted. Companies should not…
In an internal email to Cloudflare employees at that time, he was more blunt:
[T]his was an arbitrary decision. It was different than what I’d talked talked with our senior team about yesterday. I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet. … It was a decision I could make because I’m the CEO of a major Internet infrastructure company…. Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.
Prince depicts himself as a man caught between conflicting ethical principles. Which apply?
After El Paso and Dayton, Andrew Ross Sorkin penned an open letter to Walmart’s CEO, the country’s largest seller of guns:
It is clear that this country is suffering from an epidemic that law enforcement and politicians are unable or unwilling to manage.
In the depths of this crisis lies an opportunity: for you to help end this violence….
You could threaten gun makers that you will stop selling any of their weapons unless they begin incorporating fingerprint technology to unlock guns, for example. You could develop enhanced background checks and sales processes and pressure gun makers to sell only to retailers that follow those measures.
You have leverage over the financial institutions that offer banking and financing services to gun makers and gun retailers as well as those that lend money to gun buyers….
It would be easy for you, and other chief executives, to argue that controlling the gun violence epidemic is Washington’s responsibility, not yours. But in an era of epic political dysfunction, corporate executives have a chance to fill that leadership vacuum.
All of this just begs the question of how much we should expect public-style regulation from the private companies that dominate our lives. Here’s Kara Swisher on Cloudflare’s decision:
It’s long past time for the digital giants to build safety into the DNA of products from their conception. The next crop of tech companies should think about safety from the get-go….
[W]hat we have today, as I have written before, are giant digital cities that were built without adequate police, fire, medical or safety personnel, decent street signs or any kind of rules that would make them work smoothly.
Amazon’s dominant position in commerce had led it to create its own private court system for adjudicating disputes, which has given rise to an industry of Amazon-court “lawyers” to help merchants navigate it. Facebook, as well, has proposed creating something like an internal court system for handling content disputes.
All of these examples strike me as peak “publicness,” in Hillary Sale’s terminology. When companies take on public responsibilities, the public demands that they act with the transparency and concern for public values that we ordinarily expect of governments. Or, to put it another way, Matthew Prince is right: His company does not have legitimacy to make these decisions, but made they must be - which is why greater public demands will be placed on Cloudflare to anticipate them, prepare for them, and avert the next El Paso rather than simply react to it. (Check out Matt Levine’s description of the terms of Facebook’s privacy settlement.)
How successful is that effort likely to be? Well, with both apologies and nods to Friedman, if corporations are like governments, an appeal to ethics alone isn’t going to cut it. As FDR reportedly once told a group of labor activists, “I agree with you; I want to do it; now, make me do it.” In the context of government, that means constituent anger and threatened disruption; companies may not be so different. So the real question is whether public outrage can become sufficiently expensive to force change. And that has yet to be seen.