Thursday, December 21, 2017

No, private companies cannot do whatever they want

How many times have you seen someone say or write "it's a private company, they can do whatever they want"? I have seen it tons of times, and I'm getting sick of it.

Quite obviously a private company can't do whatever they want. I can't even believe this has to be stated because it's so utterly obvious. Can a private company, for instance, hire a hitman and murder people? Of course not. Can a private company, for example, put poison in their products and cause thousands of people to die from it? Of course not!

I'm not straw-manning the issue here. That sentiment is often expressed by people when a company does something that's controversial, or something that's unfair towards somebody. People will often defend the company with that sentiment, without any qualifiers, implying that private companies, just by the fact that they are "private", have some kind of carte blanche to do whatever they please, without restrictions or limitations.

It might be implied that what is really meant is "a private company can do whatever they want, as long as it's not illegal". If that's the case, then well, duh! Everybody can do whatever they want as long as it's not illegal. The question is: Was the action legal?

The law in most countries restricts what a private corporation can do, and it often delves into the situation being discussed, ie. what happened. For example, if a company offers a product or service, they need to adhere to strict safety standards. Corporations have a duty to ensure the safety of their customers. In most countries such a company can't discriminate against people eg. based on race. Likewise there are strict rules about how companies should deal with other companies, in their inter-corporation business and other such dealings (there are many competition laws that restrict what companies can do). In most countries there are tons of privacy laws that companies must obey, to protect the information of their customers.

One particular subject where the claim often comes up is precisely when a company uses or abuses its de facto monopoly (or almost monopoly) status to hinder competition. As an example, Apple has got into legal trouble in the past for abusing their de facto monopoly status (at least back in those days) in the portable music device industry. There are laws in many countries restricting anti-competitive practices.

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