Can Tech Companies Do The Right Thing? - InformationWeek

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Infrastructure // PC & Servers
05:23 PM
Michael Hickins
Michael Hickins

Can Tech Companies Do The Right Thing?

I'm all for holding companies responsible for their actions, but sometimes it's hard to predict how those actions play out.

I'm all for holding companies responsible for their actions, but sometimes it's hard to predict how those actions play out.Iranians are boycotting Nokia for having collaborated with the regime, according to a report in the Guardian. The paper reports that Nokia sold Iran monitoring equipment while building out its mobile network last year, which the government subsequently used to target dissidents.

Nokia's Iranian subsidiary (jointly owned with Siemens) claims the equipment is standard-issue, but the Iranian on the street isn't so sure.

One Iranian journalist who was recently released from prison is quoted as saying,

"the most unbelievable thing for me is that Nokia sold this system to our government… it's just inexcusable for me. I'd like to tell Nokia that I'm tortured because they had sold this damn technology to our government."

What's actually mind-boggling to me is that Nokia, of all companies, is wrapped up in this. Several years ago, when I was working on a piece about corporate social responsibility, Nokia was held up to me by several consultants as an example of corporate citizenship done right.

Warren Smith, a consultant who specializes in social responsibility and technology companies, told me at the time that Nokia was even exploring an idea he called "spiritual computing" as a way of connecting with customers across the world at a deeper level than usual:

Companies need to develop a vision for transitioning their customers to more value-added services once they have or can sustain their loyalty… They have to understand, 'you're not in the entertainment business or the whatever business, you're in the spiritual business.'

The concept isn't new -- it's also known as "enlightened self-interest" or, as "doing well by doing right" -- and it's often more self-serving than selfless. But Smith, who was even invited to address managers at the company's annual conclave in Finland, told me "Jorma [Ollila, then chairman and CEO of Nokia] really gets this."

So I find it more than a little ironic that a company so concerned with doing the right thing could become the poster child for totalitarian repression. And it begs the question of whether companies can even help themselves as long as their prime directive is to increase shareholder value, not win Nobel prizes.

In the U.S., at least, corporations enjoy civil rights (like free speech, which gives them the right to contribute money to political campaigns), and are thus expected to behave like "good corporate citizens," as the saying goes.

But you have to wonder what that really means. In the past, Human Rights watch identified Microsoft, Yahoo, Skype and Google -- whose motto is still "don't be evil" -- of cozening China's totalitarian government, yet like Nokia, those companies also make social responsibility a watchword of their respective corporate cultures.

All the major IT companies - including others I haven't mentioned -- have major social responsibility efforts under way, and seem to understand that they need to at least be seen as contributing more than simply their tax dollars.

But the issue is more complicated for technology companies than it is for, say, shoe manufacturers. Exploitation of child labor is an awful thing, but there's not much anyone can do with a shoe (other than throw it at lame duck politicians).

It's a truism that technology, like genius, can be used for good or ill. But can the use of technology truly be controlled, or do we have to accept the fact that no outcome can be predetermined? Obviously, selling rogue governments technology that can be used against its people is a bad thing. But if that technology is then used by insurgents to overthrow the dictators, wouldn't that be a good thing?

I'm not trying to make excuses for Nokia, or even to suggest that companies shouldn't bother worrying about their actions because they can't predict the future. And I certainly understand the Iranian people's anger, and applaud their sense of solidarity. What I'm suggesting, however, is that while corporations should make more of an effort to be responsible, we shouldn't be too quick to judge, understanding that they have to make judgments every day, balancing their responsibilities to shareholders, employees and world citizens alike.

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