Facebook Ever-More Vulnerable to Policy Risks, Analysts Warn

March 23, 2019, 7:00 PM UTC

Facebook Inc. is contending with a growing array of bi-partisan criticism and fresh regulatory issues which may pose increasing risk to its unique advertising-revenue-based business model, analysts say.

In recent days, President Trump tweeted that the company is “sooo on the side of the Radical Left Democrats” — even as Axios reported the president is doubling down on his Facebook spending strategy. New Zealand’s prime minister also singled out social media platforms in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attacks.

Analysts are now flagging an opinion piece in The New York Times, by Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat who’s chairman of the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. Cicilline wrote about the company’s “pattern of misconduct” and called for “an investigation into whether Facebook’s conduct has violated antitrust laws.”

“Investors should pay attention to the fact that there are people sitting in some very relevant seats that are attacking Facebook in ways that we have not seen in our almost two decade history of covering internet companies,” Stifel’s Scott Devitt wrote in a note.

Recent issues may be transient, Devitt said, and Facebook shares may prove cheap relative to the company’s earnings power, but “something feels very different to us this time.” He flagged Cicilline’s item as “further evidence that this may be more than a passing fad.” He rates Facebook shares hold.

Beacon Policy Advisors said in a note that “the potential action that regulators at the FTC could take against Facebook is far more significant” than rhetoric from Congress about reining the company in, whether via forced separation of Instagram or WhatsApp or by taxing companies that collect user data. A “substantial financial penalty,” along with other remedies, may be part of a settlement with the FTC in the coming weeks regarding user data provided to Cambridge Analytica, they said.

Facebook may also face more repercussions than other tech giants under scrutiny, like Alphabet Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., as its revenue model is uniquely ad-driven, Beacon said.

Facebook choosing “privacy above safety” may be a “trade-off not everyone will agree with,” MKM’s Rob Sanderson wrote in a note. He flagged Facebook’s moves toward inter-operability across messaging services and full encryption, and added that losing Chris Cox, whom he called Facebook’s second-most influential executive after Mark Zuckerberg, has been a catalyst for re-examining potential consequences.

Full encryption lets Facebook ensure technical privacy protection for all users, “including those that want to harm and exploit others,” which may become increasingly controversial, Sanderson said. Giving people better tools for finding and communicating with one another may boost problematic activity, while hurting Facebook’s ability to monitor “hate speech and other abuses.” And Facebook might be unable to gather as much user data, which has been “a huge enabler of better services and better ads.”

“While we think the stock remains inexpensive, mission-driven change often opens the door to potential revisions in outlook,” Sanderson warned.

It may take time for any government moves to kick in, if anything changes at all, Compass Point’s Isaac Boltansky said via email. “Big tech is facing an unprecedented global backlash from both ends of the ideological spectrum, but the policy response is still uncertain at this juncture,” he said. “There is broad bipartisan agreement that ‘something’ should be done, but as is often the case in Washington defining ‘something’ is difficult.”

Boltansky raises questions about which companies may be covered and how varied business models and products will be addressed. Even so, he said, “recent policy developments — from the FTC task force to Sen. Warren’s break up proposal to President Trump’s comments — should serve as a signal that Big Tech is at real risk of a policy paradigm shift following the next election.”

Facebook shares gained as much as 1.3 percent on Wednesday. The stock has rallied 25 percent year-to-date, versus a 13 percent gain for the S&P 500, though it has fallen almost 3 percent in the past year, compared to the market’s 4 percent rise.