The Secret Apple

Two questions arise concerning the Apple company’s policy of secrecy: its reported obsession with secrecy about company work; and its silence about the health and temporary disappearance of Steve Jobs, its chief executive.

On company policy, one can respect its strict and disciplined policy of secrecy, its adamant corporate culture of confidentiality concerning its business affairs. All companies understandably protect the sources of their commerce, especially in the high-stakes, competitive information-services sector. So if Apple punishes careless insiders, screens its premises, acts like the Kremlin, critics have no legitimate complaint, and employees can leave if they find the atmosphere punitive or uncongenial.

But government agencies that supervise public companies, and stockholders, may question the company’s silence during the period of Mr. Jobs’s alleged treatment for cancer and potential liver transplant, reported in Tuesday’s New York Times. Just as the public is entitled to know about the health and absences over health of its key government executives, so too is it entitled to know about the health and absences of key officials of companies it invests in. Mr. Jobs is entitled to privacy generally, but he sacrifices that when he governs a company the public has a stake in, expecting it invested in his management as much as the company’s products.

One wishes Mr. Jobs well in his treatment and road to recovery. But investors in a major public company shouldn’t be made victims of a company’s extreme secrecy policies that employees subscribe to. All institutions prefer to operate in the dark. The public — especially investors and potential investors — has the right to know what goes on in the corporate shadows. The companies’ executives buy into that policy of transparency, just as their employees buy into the opposite policy of confidentiality.

Ronald Goldfarb's new book, IN CONFIDENCE: When to Protect Secrecy and When to Require Disclosure, was published by Yale University Press, March 2009.


Visit www.RonaldGoldfarb.com.