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Is Jobs Entitled to Privacy?


Once again, Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs is taking medical leave for the third time since 2004 and once again, the company's stock price is unsteady as Jobs refuses to be forthcoming about the details of his condition.  It is probably connected to the rare form of cancer called a pancreatic islet cell neuroendocrine tumor that Jobs has suffered from previously.  Jobs had such a tumor removed in 2004 and said afterwards all the cancer was gone, and he did not require chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

Speculation about his health resurfaced in June 2008, when he appeared markedly thinner at an Apple conference.  He took time off again in 2009 to deal with what he termed a hormone imbalance, giving very few details about his condition.    Aside from being an obviously very personal challenge that he must face (in which surely everyone would wish him well) none of this would matter to the broader world were it not for the fact that Apple is more dependent on its CEO than most other companies. Jobs has very big shoes to fill on a long-term basis. Jobs is Apple’s heart and soul, its inspired orchestral conductor and there is no conductor -in-training to take over the role.

In his email to Apple employees announcing the leave of absence, Jobs said that his he and his family would deeply appreciate respect for their privacy.  Everyone is entitled to that, but when you are the CEO of the second most valuable company in the United States, a global public figure and the leader upon whom Apple investors rely, things change surely?  When you take public capital and run a publicly traded company, your expectations for privacy need to be modified somewhat.  Aside from that, under the securities laws in the USA companies are required to disclose “material information” about anything would influence an investor's decision to buy or sell securities.

Everyone wishes "Steve  Jobs the man"  a full and speedy recovery, but  given  that "Steve Jobs the CEO"  has such a powerful and highly influential position within Apple, shareholders and investors at least are entitled  know  precisely from what he needs to recover.  The right to privacy about pertinent medical conditions of a CEO of a public company should be outweighed by the need for disclosure.  Investors and shareholders have a right to know if any such illness could be life-threatening, if any leave of absence could be lengthy or if that illness could impair a CEO's ability to do the job.  

In the minds of loyal and thoughtful Apple shareholders any one those conditions could apply here.  The Securities and Exchange Commission regulates what information must be released and what can be kept under a lid.   Apple has asked the public, the media and most importantly shareholders to refrain from asking too much, despite the well known low survival rate of those suffering from pancreatic cancer. Apple should do the right thing by its founder and inspiration, but surely they must also do the right thing by their shareholders and investors and come clean about the prognosis for the man and the company – they are essentially the same thing.

The author, Allan Bisset, works for an internet marketing firm with a variety of technology and financial clients, including companies that offer injury compensation advice.