As Facebook Struggles, Rivals’ Leaders Stay (Mostly) Mum
The recent tribulations of Facebook, which has lurched from crisis to crisis over the past year, most recently over the handling of user’s personal data, has pushed a few of the industry’s most prominent names to speak out against the company.
Marc Benioff, the chief executive of Salesforce.com, has compared the deleterious effects of social media to those of tobacco and alcohol, and has called for more regulation of those tech companies. Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has also suggested new regulation protecting personal data might be in order for businesses like Facebook.
“I think that this certain situation is so dire and has become so large that probably some well-crafted regulation is necessary,” Mr. Cook said recently at an event in China, referring to Facebook’s recent problems.
But don’t expect a long lineup of other industry leaders to speak out anytime soon.
Although technology companies have their differences, a spirit of comity prevails among its leaders in moments of crisis. For example, technology chiefs have mostly kept quiet about Uber’s travails — from its efforts to sidestep law enforcement to a pedestrian death caused by one of its self-driving cars — even if they might express their opinions privately.
Representatives from companies as varied as Amazon, Microsoft and Slack declined to comment for this story. Part of the silence, people in the industry say, comes from a desire to avoid the business equivalent of bad karma — knowing that they, too, may one day face the buzz saw of public censure.
Others say companies have little moral standing to criticize Facebook’s practices, when they have themselves relied on the social network to acquire customers, using the same ad-targeting tools that rely on personal data that have stirred up so much controversy in the context of politics.
“I think we just have to acknowledge the entire industry’s complicity with what’s happening with Facebook,” said Glenn Kelman, chief executive of Redfin, an internet real estate firm. “It’s almost like we’re Inspector Renault in ‘Casablanca’ where we say we’re shocked, shocked with what’s happening and then a moment later someone hands us our winnings.”
“We’ve all been advertising avidly on Facebook,” Mr. Kelman added.
Many companies are also linked to Facebook through partnerships, professional organizations and a worldview about the power of data that is not all that different from that of Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook.
“It has been really hard for executives to turn their back on the gold mine of big data even in the face of compelling arguments to do so,” said Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook and a mentor of Mr. Zuckerberg’s before becoming one of the company’s most vocal detractors. “The C.E.O.s who are stepping forward here are taking the long view.”
Vanessa Chan, a spokeswoman for Facebook, declined to comment.
There are many critics of Facebook in Silicon Valley. They include former tech workers, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs like Brian Acton, who became a billionaire when Facebook acquired WhatsApp, a messaging company he helped found.
But there are few active corporate leaders in Silicon Valley who have taken a stand. Most of the handful of chiefs who have spoken out against Facebook have long been forthright on the topic of privacy. It is no coincidence that their businesses do not rely on the collection of personal data to the same degree that most internet companies do. Mr. Cook of Apple, which makes the vast majority of its revenue from the sale of devices, has for years declared that “when an online service is free, you’re not the customer — you’re the product.”
Steve Dowling, a spokesman for Apple, declined to comment.
When asked about the Facebook’s difficulties at an event in China recently, Ginni Rometty, chief executive of IBM, said companies needed to give their users better control over their personal information. “Ginni has long believed that individuals or customers own their data — not platforms,” said Edward Barbini, a spokesman for IBM.
Noah Theran, spokesman for the Internet Association, a trade group that counts Facebook and Salesforce among its members, though not Apple and IBM, said maintaining privacy and security was a top priority for internet companies.
“Internet companies comply with a wide variety of data privacy and security laws and regulations that are actively enforced by the F.T.C. and state attorneys general,” Mr. Theran said. “Trust and comfort with our products and services is essential to a thriving internet, and the internet industry is committed to providing people with information and tools to make informed choices about how their personal information is used, seen and shared online.”
Another tech leader, Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, said recently on Twitter that none of his companies advertise on the social network and vowed to take down the official Facebook pages for Tesla and SpaceX.
“It’s not a political statement and I didn’t do this because someone dared me to do it,” he wrote. “Just don’t like Facebook. Gives me the willies. Sorry.”
Mr. McNamee, the early Facebook investor, believes more industry leaders should speak out, partly because he predicts the United States can and should eventually adopt more stringent regulations akin to those emerging in Europe.
“Companies that get ahead of that curve,” he said, “will be way more successful than those who can pretend they can sustain the old model.”