Do investors have a right to know more about Jobs's health?

Apple CEO's leave rekindles debate about disclosure responsibilities

Steve Jobs

A week after news of his medical leave became public, the first sentence of a Wall Street Journal story this morning asks: "How sick is Steve Jobs?"

The underlying questions are whether Apple investors have a right to know and whether Apple's board has an obligation to tell them. Those questions are being debated anew by investors, corporate directors and regulators.

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From the Journal story:

Many boards have trouble deciding how much to tell shareholders about a CEO's sudden disabling illness because many leaders prefer privacy. Securities laws require publicly held companies to disclose material information that could affect investors' decision to acquire or sell shares. Directors decide what's material, however.

On the one hand, if Steve Jobs's health isn't "material information," then the words as used in securities law are meaningless. Right or wrong, Steve Jobs is Apple in the minds of many, including many investors.

On the other hand, we're talking about a guy's health here and this person clearly prefers to say less rather than more about his condition.

Why shouldn't that preference be respected?

Well, aside from securities law - which seems pretty clear, if not exactly carrying the day -- there are already instances where our society has dictated that our desire for medical privacy take a back seat to other concerns that are judged more important.

Employers are allowed to draw blood and demand urine from employees and job candidates on the grounds that a company's interest in a drug-free workplace trumps the individual's right to privacy. (I don't know if Apple does such testing, but would be surprised if it doesn't.)

Insurance companies demand and receive extensive medical background checks and invasive examinations not because customers are naturally willing to comply but because our laws and regulations place a higher value on corporate interests than personal privacy.  

Agree or disagree with whether these subjugations of privacy are fair and represent sound public policy, but they are undeniably as much a part of life in these times as are Steve Jobs's desire for privacy and Apple investors interest in the details of his prognosis. And there is a common thread running between the balancing acts over these drug-testing, insurance-screening and CEO health disclosure situations: Of the parties whose rights are competing for primacy, current rules in each case are stacked in favor of the more powerful.

No surprise there.

And it's not just business; one can become president of the United States without divulging any more about your medical history than media-driven politics demands.

There are those who are contemptuous of the idea that the extent of Jobs's current medical woes is anyone's business outside of those with whom he decides to confide.

It's clearly not that simple, at least not in my opinion.

As one who opposes almost all workplace drug testing and the insurance industry's weeding of sick people, I would consider myself naturally sympathetic to Jobs and his desire to guard the details of his illness.

But I'm not willing to dismiss out of hand the case being made by investors and those who believe in greater corporate transparency on these matters.

They have a point. And I'm fairly confident that their arguments are going to carry more weight over time.

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