Companies are not people – to think so is dangerous

September 3rd, 2008 in Business

One of the things that concerns me most with our society and legal system is not copyright law, it’s not patent law, it’s not our overcrowded jails, … it’s how we treat companies as people. Not only do our laws treat companies like people, but as people tend to do, we anthropomorphize companies. Companies are not people and we cannot expect them to behave like people.

It worries me when people attribute good or bad intentions to companies. Such as when Matt Asay points out the pitfalls in Google’s Chrome license and then says (I added the bold):

My concern is that this language is so broad that Google could, if it
were so inclined, invade user privacy on a grand scale. The terms of
service allow it. Only Google’s best intentions prevent it.

I also believe that Google’s current management has no intentions to do evil things with the data that Chrome gathers. But Google will own the copyright to all that data, and Google is a publicly traded company. Which means that Google can be bought. And no, that’s not bought like a person’s loyalty can be bought. That would be anthropomorphizing. Google could be literally bought – everything they own, including that personal data, could be sold, for money, to the highest bidder. And all that personal data would be owned by somebody else – or some thing else. And they might feel like they had a right to use it since they paid for it. They (if they is a company) might even have a legal obligation to their shareholders to use that data to make money.

So speaking of companies as people, with intentions, with goals, as good or evil, is a very dangerous way to think.

Companies are not evil. They are also not human beings. They can do great good or great evil … but not for the same reasons that you might do great good or great evil.

8 Responses to “Companies are not people – to think so is dangerous”

  1. Eric Pritchett says:

    You should rent the DVD The Corporation. I think you’d enjoy it.

  2. Gregor says:

    I second Eric’s recommendation – “The corporation” explores our schizophrenic perception of entities quite well.
    http://www.thecorporation.com/index.cfm?page_id=2

  3. Joe Buck says:

    A nitpick: Google will own the data that they collect, but they won’t “own the copyright”. Instead it would be their trade secret. You can’t copyright data in the US.
    Also, Google doesn’t have to be “bought”. Consider HP. At one time it was a highly humane company, and bragged, properly, about “the HP Way”. The stockholders wanted higher returns, so they brought in new management, which heaped scorn on every management practice Messrs. Hewlett and Packard stood for. Brin and Page could be replaced by more cut-throat characters at any time.
    No promise from a corporation that isn’t backed by a legally binding contract is worth anything.

  4. me says:

    The preferred shares scheme Google has, allows it to fend off any hostile takeover attempt:
    ‘Our board of directors may issue, without stockholder approval, shares of undesignated preferred stock. The ability to issue undesignated preferred stock makes it possible for our board of directors to issue preferred stock with voting or other rights or preferences that could impede the success of any attempt to acquire us. ‘
    There’s also the differentiated shares scheme, Google management has class B shares, the public has class A shares. The class B shares have 10 votes, whereas the class A shares have only one. Google management has a large majority of voting power. There’s about 75 million class B shares and about 250 million class A shares. Since you cannot buy class B shares, good luck with that hostile takeover.

  5. Don Marti says:

    Don’t be too sure about that shares scheme as a protection for your data. Google spun off part of DoubleClick after the acquisition, and could spin off other divisions with personal info too. Antitrust regulators could even force it.

  6. Companies are not people, but in Spanish law we make a difference between «personas jurídicas» and «personas físicas», that is, “corporate persons” and “physical persons”. German law also distinguishes between »juristische Personen« and »natürliche Personen« (again, between “corporate persons” and “natural persons” [translation in both cases doesn't make full sense, but it is literal to try to show the original sense in other languages]). «Persona» meant in Latin also «the subject of rights».
    I don’t know what your experience is, but an example of companies not being people is that companies invoke personal loyalty from their employees, but they apply the minimum required to them. I doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens.

  7. Stephanie says:

    Guess you hate to hear about this:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8473253.stm
    I cant believe it. Horrible.