When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is asked about his company’s volatile stock since going public, he can sound much like a politician shrugging off discouraging polls. For the social media pioneer, it’s about decisive leadership and long-term vision and not about the pesky and immediate concerns of individual investors (read voters).
While their looks and personas contrast starkly, the authoritarian parallels between Zuckerberg and our own Prime Minister are notable: each man dominates his fiefdom with precious few checks on power. Moreover, both leaders have sought to cast themselves as strong and decisive leaders within environments shaped by uncertainty and risk.
Yet their governance realities – and the nature of public and private democracy – also differ significantly.
Whereas Harper faces the voters in 2015, shareholders of Facebook may cast their judgment every second of every day, albeit in a very limited and indirect manner. The reality is that unless you have massive financial clout, to be on the Facebook train or not depends much upon your views of the conductor, or at least it should.
And in corporate governance parlance, that conductor is both CEO and Chairman, a fusion widely frowned upon since the heady days of Enron and Nortel. Recently, for example, one of the largest American pension funds has pressured Disney’s CEO to relinquish his Chairmanship despite a stellar tenure thus far. Apple, Air Canada and Canadian banks may have little in common, but they all have independent leadership atop their boards.
Why the pass for Facebook here? The glass is either half full or half empty. From the former perspective, it’s hard to argue with the success of the young founder’s leadership in surpassing more than a billion active users. Alternatively, its botched IPO has probably left large investors and activists skittish, for the time being, in potentially derailing what remains an entity in adolescence.
Facebook’s success and its enormous potential also mean that along with the vibrant Silicon Valley eco-system and a deepening managerial cadre, the company’s board includes some highly credible and seemingly independent minds. Many in Zuckerberg’s camp clearly believe that he recognizes the value of team work and dissent. Strictly speaking, however, the word of the CEO-Chairman may well be beyond reproach.
While this concentration of power should give pause for investors and all stakeholders, it also spotlights the importance of Zuckerberg’s personal relations with government leaders. Bill Gates misplayed or simply ignored political ties early in his career, resulting in contentious and costly relationships with American and European governments for several difficult years. Facebook appears to have learned this lesson.
Zuckerberg thus welcomed a campaigning President Obama to Facebook headquarters last year, around the same time agreeing with U.S. federal authorities to submit to 20 years of privacy audits. More recently, the Facebook leader was front and centre with colleagues from Apple and Google and other technology giants in underwriting what are now the world’s richest prizes for scientific research, considerably dwarfing the flagship Nobel awards.
Fundamentally, government’s role will surely be one of the largest determinants of Facebook’s future. A myriad of issues pertaining to personal privacy and Facebook’s self-described role as a “social utility” are central to the guardian domain of the public sector. Already, Facebook and other companies have been aggressively lobbying European authorities over proposed new legislation that would cramp openness and information sharing on social media sites. On both sides of the Atlantic, moreover, anti-trust agencies are observatories of monopolistic tendencies (aided by evidence and accusation readily supplied by competitors, as Google has discovered).
Facebook’s presence in Brussels marks an important step in its evolution from essentially an American start-up to that of a global entity. Perhaps learning from Google’s stymied efforts in this regard, Facebook is largely absent from China and to a large degree Russia, and globalizing tensions pertaining to cyber-security mean that Facebook is likely to maintain a complex set of relations with Western governments for whom the social media leader is becoming an indispensable ally both at home and abroad.
Ultimately, Facebook users are also voters, albeit dispersed across many countries. Individual determinations surrounding the value proposition stemming from social media involvement will sway both advertisers and elected officials and together shape an evolving nexus between Facebook and public policy. Although it may prove enduring, the marriage between Facebook is likely to be rockier and more delicate than most.