Monday, January 17, 2011

A Key to Facebook's Valuation

Recent press reports indicate that Facebook may go public in a year or so. Its recently reported private placement deal with Goldman Sachs supposedly put a $50 billion valuation on Facebook. Many think this is an optimistic number. Conventional measures of value are hard to apply to Facebook because it doesn't publicly disclose its finances. Uncertainties about its business model add to the problem. One wild card is the continued evolution of online privacy policies.

In many respects, online privacy is an oxymoron. Every day brings news of yet more security breakdowns and thefts of personal information. There doesn't seem to be a website that can't be hacked into, one way or another.

But online crime isn't the most important factor affecting online privacy. The commercialization of the Internet is far more significant. Businesses that want to sell your personal information will do much more to reduce online privacy than pimply kids eating junk food in front of computer screens.

Banks are starting to place targeted ads in your online statements. If your bank account shows, say, several recent debit card charges for fast food breakfasts, you may be offered a discount on your next Egg McMuffin. Some bank customers may like the idea of getting a discount while they review their account activity. Others will be creeped out by the idea that the most confidential financial information they have is being mined for the further profitability of purveyors of salt, sugar and fat. Many customers would be outraged at the possibility that insurance companies might pay to know about their slovenly eating habits and charge them higher life, health or disability insurance premiums. Actual insurance company access to your bank account hasn't been reported in the news, but don't think insurers--and the websites that are collecting your personal information--aren't pondering the possibility.

Banks have a lot of ways to make money, yet they are trying to profit from selling your personal information. Think of the pressures on Facebook, which has far fewer potential revenue streams than a bank. The most valuable thing Facebook has is the personal information it gathers about its members. If it can't find a way to monetize that data, its future could be difficult.

The FTC is proposing guidelines about online privacy. Members of Congress are getting interested in the issue and may offer legislation. One way or another, the law in this area will evolve and soon. When it does, Facebook's stock market value could rise or fall, depending on what rules are imposed. Indeed, since the monetization of personal information is likely to be Facebook's biggest potential revenue stream, online privacy laws could be crucial to determining the company's valuation.

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