Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A step forward for technology companies and internet freedoms

If you've been following, as we have, the story of internet companies being implicated in human rights abuses around privacy and freedom of expression - see one of our earlier blogs here - then you'll be interested to see that Yahoo, Microsoft and Google, three of the companies most in the firing line on these issues, have launched a new multi-stakeholder program, the 'Global Network Initiative' aimed at tackling the problem.

This has come in a little under the radar, as there has not been much news of these developments in the business press leading up to the launch, but it appears to have arrived as a pretty well worked out program. With a tagline of "Protecting and Advancing Freedom of Expression and Privacy in Information and Communications Technologies", the initiative is a partnership between tech companies, human rights groups, academic institutions, and other institutions involved in media and communications freedoms. It has a set of principles, guidelines on implementation, including a commitment to human rights impact assessments, and a built-in review process. Most importantly, there is also a commitment to institute independent monitoring of companies' compliance with their commitments (though not, as far as we can tell, a commitment to report publicly).

It is, it has to be said, a difficult area to navigate for technology companies. Dealing with overseas governments can raise a host of problems that they are ill prepared to deal with, especially when they are operating overseas through a subsidiary or joint venture. So the initiative is certainly welcome. It establishes a clear framework for action that should make a meaningful difference to decision makers inside the organizations concerned. Of course, the devil will be in the detail of how such principles will be realized in practice. Especially interesting in this respect for us are the commitments to actively lobby governments to shift their expectations and demands:
"Participating companies will encourage governments to be specific, transparent and consistent in the demands, laws and regulations (“government restrictions”) that are issued to restrict freedom of expression online.

Participants will also encourage government demands that are consistent with international laws and standards on freedom of expression. This includes engaging proactively with governments to reach a shared understanding of how government restrictions can be applied in a manner consistent with the Principles.

When required to restrict communications or remove content, participating companies will:
  • Require that governments follow established domestic legal processes when they are seeking to restrict freedom of expression.
  • Interpret government restrictions and demands so as to minimize the negative effect on freedom of expression.
  • Interpret the governmental authority’s jurisdiction so as to minimize the negative effect on to freedom of expression."

There are so many tricky details in that one passage alone, but it is heartening to see that the participants seem to be fully aware of the complications. As the Wall Street Journal blog, China Journal, put it:

For the most part, however, members decided not to include specific rules on issues such as where to host servers — outside servers can keep data out of problematic territories — because they felt that fast-changing technology might make them quickly irrelevant.

“The idea is that we believe the guidelines will need to be reviewed, and we will have to revise them as we take into account the actual experience,” says Sharon Hom, the executive director of Human Rights in China, which also helped develop the framework over two years. “It envisions an ongoing process of learning and sharing best practices,” she says.

So, there is still a lot to work out as the initiative unfolds. Let's just hope that Microsoft, Yahoo and Google can stay friends long enough to do all that mutual learning and sharing before they fall out with one another again...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Corporate engagement through CSR blogs?

One thing we've been taking a look at recently is the development of CSR blogs written on behalf of companies, usually by a senior CSR executive or team. Although there do not appear to be a large number of them about (or at least if there are, no one's reading them and they're not appearing in our not-very-scientific Google searches), the phenomenon does seem to be gaining some momentum. Probably the most well known is the McDonald's blog 'Open for Discussion' which launched back in 2006, but CSR blogs have probably been most conspicuous amongst technology companies, with the likes of Intel, Sun Microsystems, and Lawson Software all launching CSR blogs of one kind of another. Although IT companies may not be the most prominent in the CSR and sustainability world, especially compared to fast food companies like McDonald's, there are clearly a whole range of responsibility issues that the industry is having to deal with. The interesting thing though is that they are choosing to use their technology focus to develop new ways of engaging with stakeholders through the medium of blogs.

OK, so in reality, the CSR blog is not a major breakthrough in the development of stakeholder communication, but it does represent an attempt to connect with people about responsibility issues in a potentially more personalized and interactive way than corporate reports, press releases and TV commercials. As Intel claims, it is an "intent to create greater transparency through open dialogue". Or, as McDonald's puts it: "Get personal perspectives on the issues, hear open assessments of the challenges we face, and engage in civil dialogue with the people behind the programs at the Golden Arches."

Clearly the rhetorical emphasis here is on dialogue, although according to our reading, there doesn't seem to be too much real conversation going on. Much of the content in these is mainly about presenting the corporate position on CSR issues, but simply using another channel of communication to do so. The titles of two recent McDonald's blogs on "What my little league days say to me about the root causes behind obesity" and "An alternative perspective on larger-scale agriculture" won't leave anyone guessing that the answers are in any way in doubt - i.e. fast food is not to blame and big agriculture is good for us.

Other CSR blogs take a different approach - the law firm Addleshaw Goddard, for example sets out "the mental meanderings of our CSR Manager" as more of a diary for its CSR programme than anything else. And the Lawson "Frankly CSR" blog is also somewhat idiosyncratic, but actually says relatively little about the firm's program. It focuses more on what the VP is currently finding interesting in the CSR world.

So there are clearly different ways if going about this. Our view is that the more corporations simply use CSR blogs as another vehicle to "get their message out", the less successful they will be. We already hear enough about what they are doing. So it is not exactly surprising that most CSR blogs, even for major corporations like McDonald's, seem to get relatively few comments. As Bob Langert, the company's VP for CSR said in response to a comment on the blog recently: "I wish we received more comments". But from our perspective, this isn't likely to happen so long as Langert persists in thinking that :
"Poor perceptions of McDonald's are frequently the result of a lack of information. People need easy access to information about our social and environmental policies and progress so that they can draw conclusions based on facts. "
People are not looking for more information, and corporations suffering from "poor perceptions" should not be deluded in thinking that more information will solve their problems. Corporations need to engage with people in a different way - a way that treats their concerns seriously, that seeks to find common understandings and solutions, and that, yes, genuinely engages in dialogue. CSR blogs hold some potential for this, but at the moment, it is not being realized effectively. A change in mindset is required, not simply a change in communication channel.

But don't go thinking that we don't see anything positive in the current CSR blog phenomenon. There are some interesting discussions starting to happen out there. And perhaps most of all, what is pretty refreshing is to get a real person, an individual with a name and a face, writing about a company's CSR activities. With personalization, with a "moral face" even, there is greater potential for a meaningful ethical shift than with the bland bureaucratic messages of the faceless corporation. Plus, they tend to have a lot more fancy technological finery than our rudimentary efforts...

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Hope or despair for CSR in China?

This week, we are hosting a long-time colleague, Wayne Visser, here in Toronto. Wayne, who co-edited the A-Z of CSR with Dirk and completed his PhD under Andy's supervision, is now at the University of Cambridge and has launched a new social enterprise CSR International - a knowledge and networking organization for CSR professionals. We've been talking lots about CSR and sustainability issues and Wayne has just posted an interesting blog on CSR in China that we think you'll enjoy reading:

CSR in China: Cause for Hope or Despair?

This article looks at some of the mind-numbing facts and recent developments in CSR, as it wrestles with the question of whether to feel hopeful or depressed about the future of China and world. Let us begin with the facts...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

CSR and the financial crisis: so things can only get better?

We are trying (without too much success) to avoid getting too obsessed about the current financial crisis. But it is kind of hard to ignore, especially as it clearly has a lot of significant implications for issues of business ethics and CSR. Anyway, we thought we'd make just a few quick remarks about our last poll which saw more than 60% of our respondents siding with the idea that the crisis should lead to more CSR - and only 14% believing it would lead to less.

It's an interesting, and optimistic result, which, to be honest, we were a little surprised about. Clearly many of our readers are seeing this as a watershed moment that may create a whole lot more momentum towards responsible business practices. It is difficult to predict, but at the moment, most of the discussion seems to be more about how to better regulate business (and markets) rather than how to encourage responsibility (the assumption apparently being that business, and the finance industry in particular, is led by greedy, self-interested fat cats with little concern for the public good).

Some of the soundings we are getting at the moment are not too promising, it has to be said. There are a lot of people talking about the need to "tighten our belts" in readiness for an upcoming recession. Plus, it should be remembered that the recent drive towards CSR is also a part of the movement towards deregulation and liberalisation in markets that has got us where we are now. So its good to see that the CSR movement (or at least the part of it that reads our blog) remains optimistic about reform. Only time will tell...

The Oscars of Corruption

One of the most important rankings in the world of business ethics was updated and released last week: the ‘Corruption Perception Index’ (CPI) of Transparency International. Founded by the former UN aid worker Peter Eigen the Berlin based organization regularly collects extensive data on how countries in the world are perceived with regard to corruption in business and politics.

Sweden, New Zealand and Denmark top the list while Iraq, Myanmar and Somalia come out at the very bottom. But it is not just a list where rich Western industrial democracies win while poor developing nations lag behind. It’s interesting to see who went up and who went down. Britain took a hit, as did France and Germany – all due to high profile corruption cases in recent years. We talked about the BAE scandal in the UK in this blog which appears to have led to a drop in the UK's rating – in particular the government’s decision not to pursue the case due to ‘national security concerns’. Endemic corruption at one of Germany’s biggest companies, Siemens, arguably contributed to a drop in the ranking for Europe’s biggest economy. The US comes out 18th – just before St. Lucia – largely perhaps because of dubious campaign finance practices and special interest lobbying in Washington.

You might by now have noticed that one of the recent ‘pet theories’ of Crane and Matten focuses on the political role of the firm. Seen through the lens of the CPI the collusion and non transparent role of business in politics is interpreted as a form of corruption. And the fact that by no means all democratic countries lead the ranking and some of the them even dropped can be seen as an indicator that the political role of the corporation is on the rise.

So what is the solution? Clearly, there is still a role for strong government. The top countries, in particular Sweden and Denmark, are long standing democracies with a strong welfare state where the spheres of business and politics are reasonably held apart. Georgia, Nigeria, South Korea or Turkey – all countries which improved their ranking – did so mostly through improvements in the political governance of these countries.

But generally, we would argue that the CPI reflects the rise of private business in influencing politics, both for better or for worse. One way of addressing this then might be to just tackle these issues from the business angle. Some of the most creative approaches to eradicating corruption focus on business-government relations, such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (chaired by Eigen). Creating more transparency, clearer accountability and new forms of democratic control, both for governments and powerful corporations can be effective in addressing corruption. After all, corruption is not just an ethical issue: a one point improvement in the CPI coincides with 0.5 percent increase in GDP and a 4 percent rise in average income of a country. In particular in the global south, corruption translates into a matter of life and death for ordinary people...