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First Apple, Now Facebook: What Happens When Tech Shareholders Turn Activist?

Shareholder grievances against big tech companies are becoming more common, but in the end, powerful tech founders may hold all the cards.

First Apple, Now Facebook: What Happens When Tech Shareholders Turn Activist?
[Photos: Flickr user Alessio Jacona; Jerry Kiesewetter/Unsplash]

The head of New York City’s pension funds, who controls a $1 billion stake in Facebook, had a strong message for CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday: Step down as chairman of the board and appoint three new independent directors.

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“Data is being used without people’s permission, and that’s going to affect the brand,” New York City comptroller Scott Stringer said during an appearance on CNBC. “And that’s a brand I’ve invested close to $1 billion of people’s money in underlying their pensions.”

Stringer called for Facebook to augment its existing board with three independent directors “who have experience in terms of data, in terms of ethics.” He also demanded that the company create a data privacy oversight committee and implement a clawback policy for executive compensation, as many banks have done in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. “I am very determined to hold companies that we invest in to the highest ethical standard,” he said.

Stringer is the first prominent pension manager to come forward with public criticism of Facebook. But he is not the first shareholder to sound the alarm about a major technology company and its effect on society. Just a few months ago, a pension fund and an activist investor teamed up to voice their criticism of Apple. The gist of their message was that Apple is culpable, in part, for teens’ smartphone addictions:

“78% of teens check their phones at least hourly and 50% report feeling ‘addicted’ to their phones,” the shareholders wrote in a letter to Apple’s board of directors. “It would defy common sense to argue that this level of usage, by children whose brains are still developing, is not having at least some impact, or that the maker of such a powerful product has no role to play in helping parents to ensure it is being used optimally.”

In addition, the shareholders–Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, which together hold a $2 billion stake in Apple–presented a list of steps they said the company should take, including the convening of an expert committee and the expansion of parental controls.

Apple, in response, defended its products and said that new software features designed to combat smartphone addiction are under development. But the company has yet to describe those new features in any detail.

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Bad For The Bottom Line

In both cases of shareholder activism, investors couched their concerns as being for the good of society. But they have a secondary agenda, as well: For technology companies, reputational and regulatory risk pose a very real threat to the bottom line. In the weeks since Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica crisis first exploded, the specter of user revolt and Congressional oversight has cost the company over $50 billion in value.

Could another tech giant be next in line for shareholder criticism? It’s not hard to imagine activists going after Alphabet for YouTube’s Wild West of content, or targeting Amazon for its treatment of the contractors who manage its vast warehouses.

But for all the press they generate, activist shareholders who put Silicon Valley in their crosshairs may ultimately fail in their efforts. Voting rights are stacked against them, with powerful founders like Zuckerberg ruling their domains with an iron fist. The Facebook founder has personally lost over $6 billion over the last month amid the downward spiral of the company’s share price, yet he still holds shares worth $68.5 billion.

In comparison to that kind of clout, it’s hard to see how $1 billion in firefighter and teacher retirement savings stands a chance.

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About the author

Staff writer Ainsley (O'Connell) Harris covers the business of technology with a focus on financial services and education. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.

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