Archives For social responsibility

Last week, the Internet Association (“IA”) — a trade group representing some of America’s most dynamic and fastest growing tech companies, including the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and eBay — presented the incoming Trump Administration with a ten page policy paper entitled “Policy Roadmap for New Administration, Congress.”

The document’s content is not surprising, given its source: It is, in essence, a summary of the trade association’s members’ preferred policy positions, none of which is new or newly relevant. Which is fine, in principle; lobbying on behalf of members is what trade associations do — although we should be somewhat skeptical of a policy document that purports to represent the broader social welfare while it advocates for members’ preferred policies.

Indeed, despite being labeled a “roadmap,” the paper is backward-looking in certain key respects — a fact that leads to some strange syntax: “[the document is a] roadmap of key policy areas that have allowed the internet to grow, thrive, and ensure its continued success and ability to create jobs throughout our economy” (emphasis added). Since when is a “roadmap” needed to identify past policies? Indeed, as Bloomberg News reporter, Joshua Brustein, wrote:

The document released Monday is notable in that the same list of priorities could have been sent to a President-elect Hillary Clinton, or written two years ago.

As a wishlist of industry preferences, this would also be fine, in principle. But as an ostensibly forward-looking document, aimed at guiding policy transition, the IA paper is disappointingly un-self-aware. Rather than delineating an agenda aimed at improving policies to promote productivity, economic development and social cohesion throughout the economy, the document is overly focused on preserving certain regulations adopted at the dawn of the Internet age (when the internet was capitalized). Even more disappointing given the IA member companies’ central role in our contemporary lives, the document evinces no consideration of how Internet platforms themselves should strive to balance rights and responsibilities in new ways that promote meaningful internet freedom.

In short, the IA’s Roadmap constitutes a policy framework dutifully constructed to enable its members to maintain the status quo. While that might also serve to further some broader social aims, it’s difficult to see in the approach anything other than a defense of what got us here — not where we go from here.

To take one important example, the document reiterates the IA’s longstanding advocacy for the preservation of the online-intermediary safe harbors of the 20 year-old Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) — which were adopted during the era of dial-up, and before any of the principal members of the Internet Association even existed. At the same time, however, it proposes to reform one piece of legislation — the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (“ECPA”) — precisely because, at 30 years old, it has long since become hopelessly out of date. But surely if outdatedness is a justification for asserting the inappropriateness of existing privacy/surveillance legislation — as seems proper, given the massive technological and social changes surrounding privacy — the same concern should apply to copyright legislation with equal force, given the arguably even-more-substantial upheavals in the economic and social role of creative content in society today.

Of course there “is more certainty in reselling the past, than inventing the future,” but a truly valuable roadmap for the future from some of the most powerful and visionary companies in America should begin to tackle some of the most complicated and nuanced questions facing our country. It would be nice to see a Roadmap premised upon a well-articulated theory of accountability across all of the Internet ecosystem in ways that protect property, integrity, choice and other essential aspects of modern civil society.

Each of IA’s companies was principally founded on a vision of improving some aspect of the human condition; in many respects they have succeeded. But as society changes, even past successes may later become inconsistent with evolving social mores and economic conditions, necessitating thoughtful introspection and, often, policy revision. The IA can do better than pick and choose from among existing policies based on unilateral advantage and a convenient repudiation of responsibility.

Like most libertarians I’m concerned about government abuse of power. Certainly the secrecy and seeming reach of the NSA’s information gathering programs is worrying. But we can’t and shouldn’t pretend like there are no countervailing concerns (as Gordon Crovitz points out). And we certainly shouldn’t allow the fervent ire of the most radical voices — those who view the issue solely from one side — to impel technology companies to take matters into their own hands. At least not yet.

Rather, the issue is inherently political. And while the political process is far from perfect, I’m almost as uncomfortable with the radical voices calling for corporations to “do something,” without evincing any nuanced understanding of the issues involved.

Frankly, I see this as of a piece with much of the privacy debate that points the finger at corporations for collecting data (and ignores the value of their collection of data) while identifying government use of the data they collect as the actual problem. Typically most of my cyber-libertarian friends are with me on this: If the problem is the government’s use of data, then attack that problem; don’t hamstring corporations and the benefits they confer on consumers for the sake of a problem that is not of their making and without regard to the enormous costs such a solution imposes.

Verizon, unlike just about every other technology company, seems to get this. In a recent speech, John Stratton, head of Verizon’s Enterprise Solutions unit, had this to say:

“This is not a question that will be answered by a telecom executive, this is not a question that will be answered by an IT executive. This is a question that must be answered by societies themselves.”

“I believe this is a bigger issue, and press releases and fizzy statements don’t get at the issue; it needs to be solved by society.

Stratton said that as a company, Verizon follows the law, and those laws are set by governments.

“The laws are not set by Verizon, they are set by the governments in which we operate. I think its important for us to recognise that we participate in debate, as citizens, but as a company I have obligations that I am going to follow.

I completely agree. There may be a problem, but before we deputize corporations in the service of even well-meaning activism, shouldn’t we address this as the political issue it is first?

I’ve been making a version of this point for a long time. As I said back in 2006:

I find it interesting that the “blame” for privacy incursions by the government is being laid at Google’s feet. Google isn’t doing the . . . incursioning, and we wouldn’t have to saddle Google with any costs of protection (perhaps even lessening functionality) if we just nipped the problem in the bud. Importantly, the implication here is that government should not have access to the information in question–a decision that sounds inherently political to me. I’m just a little surprised to hear anyone (other than me) saying that corporations should take it upon themselves to “fix” government policy by, in effect, destroying records.

But at the same time, it makes some sense to look to Google to ameliorate these costs. Google is, after all, responsive to market forces, and (once in a while) I’m sure markets respond to consumer preferences more quickly and effectively than politicians do. And if Google perceives that offering more protection for its customers can be more cheaply done by restraining the government than by curtailing its own practices, then Dan [Solove]’s suggestion that Google take the lead in lobbying for greater legislative protections of personal information may come to pass. Of course we’re still left with the problem of Google and not the politicians bearing the cost of their folly (if it is folly).

As I said then, there may be a role for tech companies to take the lead in lobbying for changes. And perhaps that’s what’s happening. But the impetus behind it — the implicit threats from civil liberties groups, the position that there can be no countervailing benefits from the government’s use of this data, the consistent view that corporations should be forced to deal with these political problems, and the predictable capitulation (and subsequent grandstanding, as Stratton calls it) by these companies is not the right way to go.

I applaud Verizon’s stance here. Perhaps as a society we should come out against some or all of the NSA’s programs. But ideological moralizing and corporate bludgeoning aren’t the way to get there.

Hating Capitalism

Paul H. Rubin —  13 May 2012

One topic that has long interested me is the source of dislike or hatred of capitalism; my Southern Economics Journal article “Folk Economics” (ungated version)  dealt in part with this topic. Today’s New York Times has an op-ed, “Capitalists and Other Psychopaths” by William Deresiewicz, who has taught English at Yale and Columbia, that both illustrates and explains this hatred.  What is interesting about this column is that it is entirely about the character and behavior of “the rich” including entrepreneurs.  The job creating function of business is briefly mentioned but most of the article focuses on “fraud, tax evasion, toxic dumping, product safety violations, bid rigging, overbilling, perjury.”

What is nowhere mentioned is anything to do with the goods and services produced by business.  This is a common attitude of critics of capitalism.  In many cases, capitalists may suffer the same personality defects as the rest of us.  And, as Mr. Deresiewicz points out, scientists, artists and scholars may also be hard working and smart.  But capitalism does not reward moral worth or hard work.  Capitalism rewards providing stuff  that other people are willing to pay for.  While is is easy to point out the stupidity of the critique (Mr. Deresiewicz has written and seems proud of his book, published by a capitalist publisher and available from various capitalist booksellers) that is not my point.  Rather, this column is interesting in that it is a pristine example of a totally irrelevant critique of capitalism, written by what is a smart person.  He does cite Adam Smith, but seems to misunderstand the basic functioning of markets.  Markets reward what one does, not what one is.

LLCs have always been all about experimentation. This keeps things interesting for those like me who study them. It also provides evidence of the laboratory of state law at work, particularly in business associations, and more particularly uncorporations. But not all experiments are successful. Sometimes it’s television, sometimes it’s electric underwear.

Witness the L3C, or “low profit limited liability company.” As discussed in Ribstein & Keatinge, Section 4:10:

[S]everal statutes have enacted provisions for “low-profit” LLCs that are intended to signal to foundations and donor directed funds that entities formed under these provisions intend to conduct their activities in a way that would qualify as program related investments. The first such statute was adopted in Vermont. See Vt. Code, title 11, ch. 21, §3001(27); Low Profit Limited Liability Company, http://www.sec.state.vt.us/corps/dobiz/llc/llc_l3c.htm. This statute requires the L3C, among other things, not to have a “significant purpose” of producing income or property appreciation.

A recent article celebrates this development as “the first American legal form to embrace and facilitate social enterprise.” However, Ribstein & Keatinge notes some potential problems with the L3C:

It is not clear precisely what is accomplished by these special provisions that cannot be done under standard LLC statutes. Also, the statutes may create complications to the extent that they entail name, prospectus disclosure or other special requirements * * * and raise questions as to whether they achieve the objectives of investors seeking to use the entity to get tax breaks on “program related investments.” For criticisms of the L3C see Bishop, The Low-Profit LLC (L3C): Program Related Investment by Proxy or Perversion?. . .; Kleinberger, A Myth Deconstructed: The ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ on the Low Profit Limited Liability Company
. . . .;
Kleinberger & Callison, When the Law is Understood – L3C No . . .

Apart from the logistics, in theory firms ought to be able to provide a contractual mechanism to commit an enterprise to social purposes. In 2005 I responded to a Geoff Manne post on the British “Community Interest Company” which, as I summarized, “lets firms contract into social responsibility by restricting (though not prohibiting) dividends.” I noted that firms “may contract to take society’s interests into account.” But this really isn’t much of an issue under current corporate law given managers’ significant discretion to take society’s needs into account under the business judgment rule. Thus, CICs can be viewed as a mechanism for enhancing the managerial discretion that is already inherent in the corporation.

The real business association question is the extent to which the firm can significantly reduce managers’ discretion whether to enhance owner welfare, including by committing to earning money and distributing it to owners. This is where uncorporations such as the LLC come in. As I explain in The Rise of the Uncorporation, a basic feature of uncorporations is that they eschew corporate-type capital lock-in and subject managers to contractual commitments regarding distribution of cash. Thus, both the CIC and the L3C would differ more sharply from uncorporations than they would from corporations.

It follows that the biggest theoretical problem with L3Cs is what I would label their “incoherence.” As discussed in Rise of the Uncorporation, business association provisions need to work together rather than at cross-purposes. Coherence, among other things, enables courts to fill gaps because the statute gives them a fairly clear idea of what it’s supposed to accomplish. L3Cs’ feature of not having a significant purpose of producing income is fundamentally at odds with a central feature of uncorporations in general, and LLCs in particular, of directly constraining managers to act in owners’ interests, including through distribution obligations. Thus, as discussed in Rise of the Uncorporation Chapter 7, “L3C provisions raise issues as to the costs of flexibility and tradeoffs between flexibility and coherence.” The fact that LLCs can be made to do just about anything undercuts the beneficial coherence of the form.

It follows that, assuming there’s a need for a new business entity that accomplishes what the L3C attempts to do – that is, provide for constraints that satisfy tax and other law on program related investments – and that the tax issues with program related investments can be dealt with, it would be better to attach these provisions to a brand new corporate type of business association, perhaps including the CIC, rather than mucking up the LLC.