Facebook only did what other companies do. But that doesn’t make it right, says Mallen Baker

It’s easy to take the moral high ground when it comes to the recent spat between Facebook and Google. Facebook was sneaky and underhand. It tried to get a PR firm to smear its competitor. That’s just not a responsible thing to do.

But it isn’t that simple. If we’re drawing a line between good competitive behaviour and bad aggressively competitive behaviour, you immediately have to answer the question of where that line should be drawn.

We know territory that is clearly on the wrong side of the line – that is out-and-out abusive, anti-competitive behaviour. Such things are defined by law.

But how actively can you fight the competition? Or let’s put it another way: how seriously does the social responsibility movement expect to be taken if it holds that you can only play nicely.

Remember the old swordplay films – back from the black and white era. You know, when the villain lost grip of his sword, and the hero would chivalrously hand it back to him so they could finish a fair fight. You won’t see that in any Schwarzenegger movies.

Let’s be clear – the standard out there in the marketplace is that the fighting is fierce, and not only restricted to a healthy race to the top in terms of product quality and price.

Before Bill Gates became the world’s biggest philanthropist, he was more often demonised because of the way Microsoft threw its monopolistic weight around to keep competitors at a disadvantage. The company achieved its market dominance by wading through a slew of lawsuits from aggrieved competitors and wary regulators.

Microsoft is no longer much demonised these days. Its monopoly on the computer operating system meant nothing in the new battle – to create the prime channel through which people would interact with the internet. But Microsoft didn’t become less inclined to use powerful levers to beat the competition. It just lost its grip on those levers.

Competition thrives

The pharmaceutical sector is another case in point. In theory, it is a group of companies that have a mission to produce something of demonstrable benefit to society – medicines that help save people’s lives, or help to alleviate their suffering.

In practice, they fight among themselves with a ferocity reserved for jungle predators. The number of patent suits and counter-suits that routinely pass through the courts boggle the mind.

What Facebook did wasn’t nice. But then Google aiming to move into Facebook’s social networking area of dominance isn’t “nice”. It’s a move that aims to make Google more money by competing head to head with Facebook’s main product.

On one level, you might say that Facebook, having endured bad press over privacy concerns, would be justified in seeing Google’s own issues in that regard as fair game. If you can compete on product quality, shouldn’t you also be able to compete on ethical concerns?

The move would have been a lot less controversial if Mark Zuckerberg had made a speech making that point, or if Facebook had run ads doing the same thing. To seek to hide anonymously behind a PR firm is a pretty good indicator that you’re doing something that you believe to be wrong.

But who suffers when companies fight to damage each other? Hasn’t it always been the case that some companies do well, others don’t and decline?

It would have been different if Facebook had been organising the spreading of something that was demonstrably false.

Personally, if I had founded a business I would want it to operate to a set of values that would draw the line before smearing the competition. It would be a leap of faith that such a business can survive the dirty tricks of others by focusing hard at being better at what it does.

That’s a personal choice about the kind of business I would want to associate with. It isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for any responsible business.

For Facebook, the big deal is really that in doing what it did it behaved in a way that the majority of its users would find distasteful. Most will not worry much about it because they value what Facebook provides.

It all depends on whether Facebook wants to be a company loved by its users – as Apple currently is – or if it is content to be seen as a necessary evil by its users – as Microsoft used to be. That seems like a brand issue rather than a fundamental ethical question.

Mallen Baker is founder of Business Respect and a contributing editor to Ethical Corporation.



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