Friday, December 10, 2010

‘Freedom of Speech is Priceless - For Everything Else, there is MasterCard.’

This is a quote from the German blogosphere today, commenting on the decision of MasterCard, Amazon, PayPal and other companies to withdraw their services from the controversial Wikileaks site.

In the last two days the attention on Wikileaks has taken a really funny turn. While most of the brouhaha in the media over the last days has been about the stirs in the political world ensued by the disclosure of the diplomatic cables, the debate has taken a conspicuous turn in the last two days.

First, there is the decision of these companies to withdraw their services from Wikileaks. While this points, once more, at the blurring boundaries between business (making profits) and politics (acting as agents of their democratic electorates) it also highlights the increasing relevance of ethical reasoning for corporate decision making. How we would love to have been a fly on the wall in the boardroom of these companies when they were deliberating on how to deal with Wikileaks these days!

Now, the controversy here is rather simple – and has been discussed by us on the blog before: what should a corporation do in the face of censorship by a government? In the case of Google et al. in China the answer still seems reasonable easy: of course they should not allow it, in particular as they would bow to demands of a totalitarian, undemocratic regime. But what about the US government? And its perils in the face of a fairly low key website such as Wikileaks, disclosing some rather embarrassing realities about the war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and latest, their real thoughts about friends, foes and allies?

Alas, the reaction of these companies and their declared intents are anything but convincing. And do not reveal a very informed and mature expertise in addressing ethical issues. How can MasterCard still offer services to organisations close to the Ku Klux Klan, but turn down Wikileaks on the grounds of violation of the rule of law in democratic countries? It does not make sense. Similarly, Twitter’s half-baked explanation about why to go easy on Wikileaks Tweats was anything but convincing. It all points to a second insight the recent disclosures have made more than obvious.

A minute ago, The Guardian (on its website) revealed how Pfizer attempted at tweaking the political system in Nigeria to avoid legal action because of dubious practices in drug trials (‘The Constant Gardener’ is kind of greeting…). Similarly, the cables reveal how deeply MasterCard and other credit card companies were using American political/diplomatic clout to further their business goals in Russia, for instance. Most notably we learned about the fact that oil giant Shell ‘had seconded employees to every relevant department and so knew "everything that was being done in those ministries".’ Not only that this slightly clashes with Shell’s business principles – or maybe provides us with a proper interpretation of those: ‘Shell companies do not take part in party politics.’ Fair enough. But the Wikileak cables provide us with the proper interpretation of what Shell really means when it makes a sweeping statement like this:
‘However, when dealing with governments, Shell companies have the right and the responsibility to make our position known on any matters which affect us, our employees, our customers, our shareholders or local communities in a manner which is in accordance with our values and the Business Principles.’ (Principle 3)
The merit of Wikileaks is not that we suddenly discover what companies say publicly is not the same as they do in private. We are all guilty of this at times. As Lizzie Widdicombe puts it in the New Yorker this week, the problem is not a certain discrepancy in facts, but the ‘abrupt shift in tone’. Not that companies feel exposed by revelations of some sort of truth, but in fact by a disclosure of intent. All that smooth talk about CSR in Nigeria on Shell’s website – at the end of the day the intent of their most senior executive in the country reveals the true attitude: an instrumental approach to the countries Shell is operating in.

So there is much merit in following the websites of those news organisations, Wikileaks has entrusted with the documents. Democracy is only possible with some basic transparency of the institutions that govern us. Wikileaks, again, highlights the fact that those are not just governments. But more and more also corporations. In that sense, it is somewhat sad that the two previous waves of Wikileaks’ disclosures have only met rather limited uproar: the Iraq war (incl. the video on American soldiers killing civilians) and the Afghan War Logs. The real fury in Washington and elsewhere came with the latest disclosure of the diplomatic cables. Chances are, that the latter will give us a much more precise idea of how much the collusion between business and governments has really developed.

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