Guns don’t kill people,…

We’ve had lawsuits against gun manufacturers.  Environmental groups have organized protests against John Deere because its earth-moving equipment is used in the destruction of Amazonian rain forests.  Yahoo and Google have faced widespread criticism for helping the Chinese stifle freedom of expression.  IBM has fended off lawsuits brought by Gypsy groups claiming that the company’s equipment enabled the Nazis to automate the Holocaust.  Now, Siemens and Nokia, it turns out, provided the network equipment that is currently helping the Iranian government to block the Iranian people’s access to the Internet in its attempt to shut down protests against the recent election result.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the companies claim that the equipment is similar to that used by most telecommunications companies to monitor and intercept communications about criminal activitie such as terrorism, child pornography and drug trafficking.

We have been here before and we will be here again.  As it turns out, according to the article, Siemens and Nokia have already exited this market by selling the joint venture to an investment firm based in Munich. They claim that “intelligence solutions” are not part of their core business.  Commentators, such as Buzzup, have expressed the hope that the growth of encryption technologies will help individuals stay ahead of government invasions of privacy but for us the Iranian government’s response to the protests illustrates one of the more fundamental and intractable challenges in corporate reputation: what happens when my products or services are used in ways that I and a meaningful section of my stakeholders consider morally reprehensible? 

As is so often the case, the matter comes down to a question of degree, common sense and forethought.  We don’t expect the makers of rope to restrict sales of their products because of the occasional strangulation or ask cutlery companies to conduct background checks before selling kitchen knives.   However, we do expect companies whose products could be used for controversial purposes to have a point of view on the questions that such use could pose.  Google has argued that agreeing to censor itself to meet Chinese requirements is justifiable because its presence in the market contributes overall to better access to information for the Chinese people.  There are those who disagree but the company has been straightforward about its view.  In the case of Google, public interest in this question was eminently predictable but we believe that every company should have an active process for monitoring potential abuse of its products or services and a point of view about where it draws the line on controversial sales.  The Internet, as we know, has enabled an order of magnitude change in transparency that makes it almost impossible for issues of this kind to stay beneath the radar.  In 1971, only a handful of people would have been aware of the brands of psychotropic drugs being used in the Soviet Union to “sedate” political prisoners.  Today, anybody in the world could probably view Flickr images of drug labels captured by cellphone cameras.  There are few bright lines when it comes to the abuse of legitimate products and services.  Companies should at least be prepared for a public discussion of the gray areas.

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One Response to “Guns don’t kill people,…”

  1. John Orme Says:

    You lay out a perfectly reasonable, coolly-argued perspective that is difficult to gainsay, but I suspect your balanced analysis hides a more fiery sense of frustration that corporations who should know better still blunder into these quagmires despite cartoon-like arrowed signposts shouting: “Warning! Quicksand ahead!”

    At a time when the knowledge-driven economy has been recognised for nearly two decades, the critical crisis management exercises of Issues Mapping and Risk Assessment should have become a matter of functional due diligence for companies whose brand is the biggest ticket item on their balance sheet.

    Shareholders and non-executive directors should be raising Cain that corporate risk identification and protection still seem to be the responsibility of the security guard on the gate rather than a dominant preoccupation of the main board.

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