Earlier this week, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission released a report of its investigation regarding whether Netflix and its CEO, Reed Hastings, violated certain securities regulations prohibiting the selective disclosure of corporate information when Hastings posted a comment on his personal Facebook page regarding the achievement of a corporate milestone.
In doing so, the SEC considered the disclosure of corporate information on social media generally, ultimately finding that its 2008 guidance, which discusses the distribution of information on corporate websites, also applies to corporate disclosures made through social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. Specifically, the SEC stated that where it is reasonably foreseeable that the recipients (securities professionals and/or shareholders) of such information will trade on the basis of such information, it must be disseminated in a manner reasonably designed to provide broad non-exclusionary distribution to the public. To achieve this, issuers must take sufficient steps to alert investors, the market and the media as to the channels that will be used for the dissemination of material, nonpublic information. As an example, the 2008 guidance encourages periodic reports or press releases to include web site addresses or other information regarding steps investors or the public can take to be in a position to receive important disclosure.
As such, the SEC does not preclude the use of social media sites to distribute material, nonpublic information so long as appropriate notice regarding the use of such sites has been made to investors. To this end, the SEC report cautions that issuers are expected to “rigorously” examine factors indicating whether a particular channel is a “recognized channel of distribution” for communicating with investors. While each case will be fact specific, in most cases (as in the Netflix example) disclosure of material nonpublic information on a personal Facebook page without advance notice is unlikely to qualify as an acceptable method of distribution even if the individual in question has a large number of subscribers or contacts.
In Canada, regulators have not specifically addressed issuer disclosure through social media, however, principles governing selective disclosure are set out in National Policy 51-201 Disclosure Standards. For TSX-listed companies, the TSX has published its own Electronic Communications Disclosure Guidelines. Staff of the Canadian securities administrators have also provided guidance on the use of social media by portfolio managers, noting that firms and registered individuals contemplating the use of social media should consider, among other things, establishing appropriate policies and procedures for the review, supervision, retention and retrieval of materials posted on social media websites.