Monday, May 30, 2011

Sex, privacy and media ethics

Sex sells. And sex really sells in the media business. With their profitability in free-fall, newspaper businesses especially are always on the look out for a salacious front page story to help them grab some precious market share. Unfaithful soccer stars "playing away from home", celebrity match-ups and break-ups, trysts with prostitutes, or accusations of sexual assault are all highly newsworthy, especially at the tabloid end of the market. But recent events in the UK and elsewhere have led many to question whether the sex lives of celebrities can be afforded some degree of privacy protection from an intrusive media, or whether in the interests of press freedom, and the growing uncontrollability on online social media "reporting", they are simply fair game.

In the last few weeks the Ryan Giggs super-injunction affair in the UK has brought these issues to a head. Why all the excitement? Well until a few days ago, Giggs, one of the UK's best known soccer players, was the mysterious unnamed figure who had successfully been granted a so-called super-injunction by the English courts. The injunction had been given to protect Giggs' privacy in the wake of an attempted kiss-and-tell story by Imogen Thomas, a former reality TV star, who claimed to have had an affair with the married, and previously squeaky-clean, soccer star. It not only prevented newspapers from reporting the story but also from even referring to the injunction or the claimant.

Super-injunctions like the one granted to Giggs have become the legal instruments of choice for individuals and companies in the UK looking to prevent their activities from being reported in the press. They are granted by the courts to protect privacy under the Human Rights Act. The newspaper industry is predictably waging a war of words against them because they shackle some of the traditional freedoms that they are used to and which they rely on to act as the fourth estate. Super injunctions also raise the hackles of the public because with a price tag that starts at something like US $100,000 they appear to allow special legal treatment for the rich and famous. Moreover, as the Giggs affair and the 2009 pollution case of the oil company Trafigura have shown, the rise of social media platforms such as Twitter through which stories can be circulated outside the remit of the formal TV and newspaper industries, the limits of existing legal protections for privacy are being severely tested. Giggs' name was connected to the injunction through Twitter long before the press could report on it, raising legal questions about the culpability of Twitter and it's tweeters for being in breech of the injunction.

There are all sorts of ethical questions arising out of this, but from our point of view, it largely boils down to the question of when our sex lives should be private and when could or should they also be public knowledge? Let's sort out some of the considerations here:

1. Consent
Obviously the starting point here is consensual sex between adults. Coerced sex or sex crimes fall into an entirely different realm of privacy. The media has a legitimate right to publish in these cases provided legal protections for victims and the accused (which differ between jurisdictions) are respected. But clearly Dominic Strauss Kahn's alleged assault on a hotel chambermaid should be held to a different standard of privacy than his consensual affairs. Affairs with subordinate employees, even when supposedly consensual, might fall somewhere in the middle given the power dynamics involved.

2. Public interest
Where there is a potential public interest at stake the media also has a stronger case for investigating and publishing, such as where politicians campaigning on "family values" are accused of marital infidelities, anti-gay advocates are caught with rent boys, or legal enforcers break the law by paying for sex. A weaker but sometimes defensible case can also be made for leaders in a position of authority and trust whose trustworthiness might be questioned when extra-marital affairs come to light. The sex lives of celebrities rarely have a public interest component .... however much the public may be interested in hearing about them!

3. Privacy vs free speech
In the absence of coercion or public interest, there is much less chance of the press claiming a prima facie right to publish. Privacy (and after all sex is pretty private) will usually trump rights to speech unless free speech can lead to other public benefits. It's a matter of avoiding harm being prioritized over some fairly minimal free speech benefits.  The media may claim that the right to privacy is critically weakened in the case of marital infidelities and other ethical infractions. But even the unjust should be able to expect justice.

4. Harms and benefits
Without public interest, for the equation to fall on the side of publishing, there will often have to be some meaningful moral benefits for one or more of the parties to the "private" act. A spurned lover with an illegitimate love child for instance might be looking to tell their side of the story in the media and thereby gain some kind of apology or recompense from a celebrity. Here the ethical equation between speech and privacy should shift more convincingly towards publishing.

5. Reasonable expectation
Where the waters really get muddied is in the question of reasonable expectation. Privacy is typically attributed when there is a reasonable expectation that something will remain so. A telephone call or a conversation in a private residence should reasonably be expected to remain private, for example. That is why the UK newspaper, the News of the World, is in such hot water for it's illegal phone hacking of celebrities. These conversations took place in a reasonable expectation of privacy and should remain that way unless one of the participants chooses otherwise. But phone hacking is a case of the ethics of media tactics. A newspaper offered a story by a willing kiss-and-tell informant is very different. Here it is one of the participants looking to rewrite the "contract " of privacy established between themselves and their sexual partner. And in this case we have to ask ourselves whether soccer stars and other celebrities really have a reasonable expectation that their affairs with glamour models and reality TV stars will remain private. However much they wish it to be the case, there appears to be a lot of evidence to the contrary. Sure, this may be a case of a highly pragmatic interpretation of rights to privacy, but it's in the real world, a world of privacy for sale that we increasingly find ourselves in. Celebrities should be protected from direct intrusions into their privacy by the media. But maybe they should not be protected from their own decisions about who to be "private" with in the first place.

Photo by AtilaTheHun. Reproduced under creative commons licence

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Opium still works

For those of our readers who don’t live in North America one of the news lines on major media outlets including CNN or The New York Times last weekend will sound rather quaint. Last Saturday (21 May), based on the predictions of the American Radio Broadcaster Harold Camping thousands of people on this side of the Atlantic were expecting the ‘rapture’, i.e. the disappearance of all ‘true’ Christians to heaven and the judgement day for all the rest of us.

The absurdity of what sounds like a weird hallucination of a 89-year old zealot however did not stop a remarkable number of followers to take his, allegedly, biblical calculations dead seriously. People dropped their university education and their jobs in the face of the world’s imminent end, or invested all their retirement savings into alerting the world to this event. As we know by now, it was of course all a big hoax.

Now we refer to this not so much as to dissect the insanity or validity of religious beliefs (though that’s a discussion worth having). The more amazing thing seems to be how powerful and pervasive religious beliefs still are. While Karl Marx’s famous quote of religion being ‘the opium of the people’ insinuated that a more liberated, developed and economically empowered humanity would no longer need this sedatitive we are still living on a planet where at least two thirds of the population confesses adherence to some form of religion. And the numbers are still rising.

It could be interesting to speculate about the reasons. Keith Bauer, a Maryland tractor-trailer driver who last week drove his family cross-country to witness the ‘rapture’ in Camping's California headquarters, told one newspaper: “I was hoping for it because I think heaven would be a lot better than this earth”. This all points to Marx: the ‘sigh of the oppressed’ is still loud and clear because by and large, the enormous social, economic and technological achievements of the last two centuries have still left the majority of people in the world where Marx saw them in the 19th century.

That would be one claim. We are aware that there are of course other contenders for explaining the unbroken popularity of religion. For us the prevailing relevance of religion has been interesting from a professional point of view. Initially, when we started writing the first edition of ‘Business Ethics’ in the early 2000s we were rather curt on the topic. This had to do, among other things, with the fact that the project of ‘ethics’ is in some ways the exact opposite of religion.

The central starting point of ethical reasoning is the assumption that human beings, by dint of experience and rational reflection, are indeed able to delineate morally right and wrong behaviour. Religion, most notably the monotheistic ones, however start from the assumption that human beings are not able to do this - in some religions even are considered intrinsically ‘fallen’ and corrupted. Man rather needs to be told about right and wrong by some ‘celestial dictator’ (as Christopher Hitchens would put it), who incentivizes his rules by the reward of heaven or hell - ultimately.

Consequently, we did not see too much space for religion in a book on ethics. However, it is remarkable how much research there has been on the effect of religious beliefs on business ethics in the last three decades. Just to talk a bit more from the Crane&Matten shopfloor, we are currently working on a four volume anthology on New Directions in Business Ethics – and lo and behold!: articles on religion and business ethics in the academic journals form a chunky part of it.

This reflects of course the fact that for many societies religion is still a major force in questions about the right or wrong of human behaviour. Over the years, we discovered this force of religion also among the readers of our textbook – hence we felt encouraged give it a bit more airtime in the latest edition. We are still, though, kind of puzzled about the conclusion from this research. After all, the imperatives of most of the world religions on business behaviour amount to some form of common sense, which does not necessarily need some superior authority to pull this out of the hat: fairness, honesty, respect of property, long term orientation, concern for the poor, and many other nice things. All these are strikingly similar to what secular ethicists would suggest.

Admittedly, some religions gave rise to specific tools (e.g. Islamic Finance) or elaborate conceptual frames (e.g. Catholic Social Thought) or pretty unique companies (e.g. Zoroastrianism and the TATA companies in India). More interesting is the research on whether religious business people act more ‘ethical’ (in the sense of morally more desirable) than others. Here, it strikes us that the beauty is often in the eye of the beholder (i.e. the person who conducts the research). But that’s probably a subject for yet another blog post.

Photo by Chris Yarzab, reproduced under the Creative Commons License.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Will privacy and security be critical differentiators in cloud computing?

The debut this week of Google's new web-only Chromebook laptop, coming hot on the heels of Sony's massive data security breach just a few weeks ago suggests that data security is becoming increasingly critical for the success of technology companies. Google, no stranger to accusations over infringements of privacy, is upping the ante with the release of a computer that, rather than running software and storing files on its own hard drive, will instead rely predominantly on cloud computing. Yes, that means everything that you'd usually keep stored on your laptop will actually be held somewhere in a vast data center run by Google ... and of course, everything that you do can be tracked and recorded because you're signed-in and doing it online.

Although the Chromebook itself may not become quite the challenger to Microsoft and their Windows operating system that Google hopes it will be, the shift to cloud computing (which anyone using Picasa, Google Docs, Dropbox or numerous other applications is already very much part of) is sure to continue apace. But cloud computing raises a number of troubling ethical issues. On the one hand there are the environmental problems associated with running servers capable of storing such huge amounts of data. And then, of course, there are the privacy and data security issues that are faced by any company storing so much personal data online.

In recent weeks, consumers have been made all too aware of these privacy and security issues because of several high profile data disasters. Last month, for example, Amazon, which has been a leader in cloud computing, was forced to shut down its service for several days. A number of companies using its services were paralyzed and some even lost potentially valuable data. Then Sony's travails with hackers reached a new zenith when the company was forced to concede that more than 20,000 of users of its online gaming system had their financial details stolen. Osama bin Laden even got in on the action when a swath of spam Facebook messages purporting to be photos and videos recording the death of the former Al Qaeda leader turned out, according to the Financial Times, to be malicious malware designed to phish for passwords and financial data from infected computers. Ironically, even as we tried to publish this post, Blogger experienced a service disruption that meant that we were unable to publish for more than 24 hours. So much for the instantaneity of social media! All of this added up to bad news for technology companies looking to convince customers of the safety and security of their products and services.

This then raises the question of whether data security and privacy protection will increasingly become critical areas of competition between leading technology companies, especially those relying on cloud computing, rather than just being a kind of necessary evil for everyone concerned. Microsoft, whose operating systems and internet software had long been plagued with security problems, certainly seemed to be thinking this way when it launched its Windows 7 operating system. The company has long been compared unfavourably in terms of security to Apple's Mac OS - but appears to have regained some ground with its latest version. But as more and more personal data moves to the cloud, and companies like Facebook and Google become increasingly involved in recording, using and selling data related to our usage stats and preferences, this is likely to affect a wider range of companies ... and potentially in an even more significant way. Yesterday's revelations that Facebook employed a leading PR company to plant negative stories in the media about Google's privacy policies gives some indication of just how high the stakes are becoming. And nothing focuses corporate attention more than the threat of multiple lawsuits, which is the latest ignominy faced by Sony in the fall-out from its hacking attack.

Despite all this, there are still reasons to doubt whether security and privacy will ever become major differentiators in the battle for technology market share. Unlike speed, performance and design, security is a tricky intangible that is difficult to evaluate up front. And besides, despite their criticisms of technology companies, most end users in practice tend to display a fairly carefree disregard for security issues, and even for their own privacy protection. After all, how many people actually read all of those terms and conditions when they download another Facebook app or install a new piece of software? With commercial users the equation is different, of course, but for the average Joe, security is a concern but not one that yet impacts significantly on their technology choices.

In the end, a better way of looking at this might be for technology companies to start looking at privacy and security as pre-competitive issues. That is, rather than competing on the quality of their privacy protections, why not collaborate with one another to improve standards across the industry. After all, a major hack at Sony, an outage at Amazon, or a spate of malware at Facebook threaten the reputation for security across the board not just for the individual company that is targeted. Problems at one company can spell reputational damage for the industry as a whole. Sure, healthy competition can drive innovation in new security systems. But so too can healthy cooperation. And in the long run it might just be more effective, and provide a better service for skeptical consumers unsure of how far they want to put their trust in tech companies.

Picture by samplereality. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Minefields and Mining

What a couple days we had! First a Royal Wedding watched by half of the Globe. Then Obama’s capture of Osama. And finally, for us here in Canada, an election with a scary winner.

Welcome to the world of ambiguity. Wills & Kate look like a nice couple and less fake than most of what has been on display by the British Royals in the last decades. But all this pomp, glitter and archaic ceremony? It’s 2011,folks, wake up! But we still preferred the ecstatic crowds Friday a week ago in London to those in Washington last week Sunday night. A middle-ages inquisition ceremony could not have been jollier - or should we say - barbaric. Osama bin Laden? Certainly a person that has some things to answer for. But do we buy Obama’s ‘brought to justice’ rhetoric? After all, according to many Bin Laden and his movement was largely an American creation in the first place. And then the Canadian election: the Bonsai-George-Double-U Stephen Harper has now a solid majority. He will ‘Americanize’ the country further until it can just apply for becoming the 51st state of those ‘South of the Border’. The same election though gave us also the victory of the centre-left NDP winning the biggest number of seats in history. A bit of pyrrhic victory though.

All in all a minefield for the ethicist. Which provides some space to talk about – why not – mining. In fact that industry has taken our attention here in our School in Toronto over the last couple of months. As it turns out, Schulich will launch later this year a specialization in ‘Mining and Minerals’ on the MBA program. A core topic for this new program in fact will be the social responsibilities and ethics of mining.

Now, that’s a minefield in itself. Our school prides itself on being the leading school in the world in integrating environmental and social issues into business education. How does this go together with getting into bed with the mining industry? An industry which has a fairly dubious legacy with regard to ethics and social responsibility as the main focus of a school focusing exactly on these issues? There was some debate among faculty about this.

For us, this question gave rise to some thinking, too. As academics, we can stay, as one of our colleagues sometimes put it, ‘small and clean’ – or one can get out there, engage with issues, actors and industries which are of big importance and get the hands a little bit dirty. For the time being, the latter approach seems to be more intriguing and rewarding. In the sense that our research and teaching might in fact have an impact on the real world.

Of course a closer engagement with mining surfaces the rather complex nature of the industry. On a recent visit to some goldmines in Turkey we were able to witness these issues from closer up. We visited the area around Canakkale, 3 hours southwest of Istanbul, where currently some substantial explorations in gold mining are taking place. On the one hand, mining can in fact have substantial positive impacts on economic and social development of communities. This of course assumes that mining companies (in this case Australian and Canadian firms) share employment, infrastructure and profits with local communities. The effect can be rather substantial as often mines are located in otherwise not very developed regions. On the other hand, the disruption of the environment and the pollution around mining operations are huge.

The push for responsible mining, as we witnessed on site, is challenged by a number of characteristics of the industry. First, mining in the early, exploratory stages is still pretty much a gamble. Hundreds of millions investment is needed before even the first drop of oil or the first ounce of gold can be mined. This puts a rather tight budget and intense investor scrutiny on the companies and will make extensive voluntary expenses on environmental or other social responsibility issues rather difficult to justify. Second, unlike the big mining MNCs such as Rio Tinto, Glencore or AngloAmerican, the majority of companies are rather small, especially in the early stages of mining. They often simply lack the resources, often also the awareness of managers who mostly have science/engineering backgrounds with little understanding of wider social impacts of mining. Third, and finally, mining predominantly takes place in contexts of rather poor governance and regulation where the immediate pressure on companies to avoid harm to the environment and local communities is rather weak.

This is certainly an educational challenge. One executive we spoke to mentioned, just as an example of the dimensions of social responsibility, that the manager of a large mining project he was involved in in Papua New Guinea is now more or less in charge of half of the GDP of this country. This entails responsibilities beyond just the immediate profitable management of the extracting operations (which is a 24/7 job to begin with). Those managers inevitably assume – whether they know it or not – wider responsibilities for economic, social and environmental development and welfare of a country. We consider this a stark challenge – in education, research and engagement with the industry and their many critics in civil society. We might talk more about mining in this space!