Facebook's dubious social mission
By Phil Mattera, Dirt Diggers Digest
The Blues Brothers claimed they were on a mission from God. Mark Zuckerberg, whose $17 billion fortune is about to become even larger thanks to the Facebook initial public offering, insists that his company is on a "social mission."
In a letter accompanying the firm's first substantive disclosure filing, Zuckerberg writes that "Facebook was not originally created to be a company." Its mission, he says, is "to make the world more open and connected," and he insists: "we don't build services to make money; we make money to build better services."
It's difficult to take this high-mindedness seriously in connection with a company that may soon have a market value of $100 billion built on persuading millions of people to hand over vast amounts of personal information about themselves that Facebook -- which has a total workforce of only 3,200 -- then sells to corporate marketers. Data protection and privacy are generally considered good things; for Facebook, the possibility of more stringent laws in those areas is presented as a risk factor in its SEC filing.
In his social mission statement, Zuckerberg also writes: "We believe building tools to help people share can bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time."
It's interesting that Zuckerberg never refers to the need for more accountability on the part of Facebook or corporations in general. His letter gives the appearance of promoting corporate social responsibility but never actually does so. His attitude seems to be that Facebook's only real obligation is to provide supposedly fabulous services, and that by itself will change the world.
It should thus come as no surprise that when it comes to dealing with governments and communities, Facebook is just as self-serving as any corporation not pretending to be on a social mission. This is demonstrated most clearly at its data centers.
These facilities, also known as server farms, are large collections of computers that power online networks. They use vast amounts of power and thus are located in rural areas with cheap electricity. Being highly automated, they create few jobs -- yet Internet companies take advantage of the desperation of local officials for investment of any kind to obtain substantial economic development subsidies.
Facebook announced in January 2010 that it would build its first data center in central Oregon, choosing a location in the economically depressed town of Prineville that was part of an enterprise zone, thus making it eligible for property tax breaks for up to 15 years. The company later began expressing public concerns about how its intangible property would be taxed. In recent months it has been pressuring state legislators to restrict the ability of the state revenue department to assess data centers as utilities.
The company has even tried to intimidate the state by warning that, unless it got its way on taxes, the future of the Prineville facility -- which employs about 50 people -- would be in question. The revenue department now seems to have backed down. It is amazing to see how this purportedly enlightened company would throw its weight around to avoid pay a tax bill that under the worst case scenario would have cost it only $390,000 a year. (That figure, by the way, is about 1 percent of the $30.9 million that Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg received in total compensation last year, according to the company’s new SEC filing.)
Meanwhile, Facebook has negotiated a subsidy deal for its second data center, located in North Carolina's Rutherford County. The facility, which was expected to create about 40 jobs, was made eligible for up to $11 million in county financial assistance, on top of state tax breaks for data centers enacted in 2010. The one good thing that can be said about these subsidies is that they are a lot less costly than the ridiculous sum of $260 million that North Carolina gave to Google in 2007 for its server farm project in the state.
In 2010 Facebook also got a $1.4 million grant from Texas Gov. Rick Perry's Texas Enterprise Fund to help pay for the creation of a sales office in Austin.
Paying its fair share of state and local taxes without taking subsidies it doesn’t need and without bullying public officials would be a good way for Facebook to start acting like it really is on a mission other than enriching Mark Zuckerberg and a small number of other members of the 1%.
(Photo of Mark Zuckerberg speaking at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland via Wikipedia.)
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