Archive for the ‘freedom’ Category

SkyDrive: Is Microsoft a Nanny State?

When should a corporation play the role of legal and moral enforcer? And when does a corporation start to take on the obligations — and limits — of a government?

Consider Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system. When it was released last year, the new OS has met with mixed reviews. But at least one review, by PC World, noticed something interesting about SkyDrive, the new cloud storage service integrated into Windows 8:

“Microsoft restricts the types of files you may upload: Illegally copied commercial content is prohibited, and so are files that contain nudity or excessive violence.”

Just what does that mean? Let’s focus here just on the nudity part.

During an online Q&A session this summer, two Microsoft engineers clarified. Apparently SkyDrive’s rules mean that you are free to store your nudie pics, as long as they don’t include any child pornography. But if you use SkyDrive’s file-sharing feature, the limits are more strict: no nudity at all. So, those topless beach photos from your Mexican vacation are OK to store, but not to share. Is Microsoft checking to make sure stored erotica doesn’t include children? That’s not clear.

This raises interesting problems related to the amount of control that corporations have over everyday activities like storing computer files, especially when — as is the case with many tech companies — their services become part of the infrastructure of our lives, woven into everything we do.

Such power isn’t going to go away. But it does raise questions about the ethical standards that apply to corporate behaviour. If corporations have the kinds of power that were once reserved for states, do they then have the same kinds of obligations? Do the same standards for surveillance and search-and-seizure apply to Microsoft and its users as apply to a government and its citizens?

Of course, if Microsoft users don’t like it, they are in principle free to opt out. There are alternatives to SkyDrive — including Dropbox, Apple’s iCloud, and many others. But Microsoft’s market penetration in terms of operating systems means that for many users (especially ones who aren’t technically sophisticated) SkyDrive is the default. And default options matter; there’s a vast psychological literature on how often people simply go with the default, even when an alternative is available that would advance their interests better.

With great market power comes great responsibility.

Starbucks to Guns: “No Thanks”

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has stirred up controversy by posting an open letter asking Americans not to bring firearms into the coffee chain’s stores, even where it is legal to do so.

“Few topics in America generate a more polarized and emotional debate than guns,” Schultz wrote. “In recent months, Starbucks stores and our partners (employees) who work in our stores have been thrust unwillingly into the middle of this debate. That’s why I am writing today with a respectful request that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas.”

I think Schultz is to be commended. Not for the position he has taken, but for the way he went about taking it. His open letter lays out the problem frankly and even-handedly. Some people are in favour of openly carrying firearms. Others are made incredibly uncomfortable by the idea of armed civilians behind them in line while they order a grande, half-sweet, non-fat, no-whip mocha. And Schultz doesn’t want his employees caught in the middle, so he’s making a polite request.

But, not surprisingly, the request has generated a firestorm of opposition. Not all of that opposition was well reasoned.

Twitterers who screamed that their rights were being tread upon, for example, were doubly incorrect. First, it is important to note that Starbucks isn’t imposing a ban on firearms in their stores. They’re asking politely, and have given no indication that they’re going to do anything more than that. Asking politely doesn’t infringe anyone’s rights.

Secondly, Starbucks isn’t the government, so appealing to the Second Amendment right to bear arms is (no pun intended) off-target. The US Constitution and the amendments to it protect citizens from intrusions by government, not from (supposed) intrusions by other citizens or private institutions like Starbucks.

But this raises larger, more interesting questions. It’s easy for me to say that, hey, Starbucks is a private company and it can make whatever requests it wants. It could even outright ban firearms from its stores, if it wanted to. They certainly wouldn’t be the first to do so. The stores are private property, and Americans do have constitutionally-protected property rights. Schultz doesn’t have to allow visitors to his home to carry guns, and he doesn’t have to allow visitors to his stores to carry them either.

But there’s an important sense in which a big company like Starbucks isn’t “just a company,” and a sense in which its stores are not fully private property. Starbucks has over 13,000 stores in the US alone (and over 60,000 worldwide), making their stores the go-to spot for coffee, a soft chair, and free wifi for plenty of Americans. And Schultz’s own vision for Starbucks was to make it a ‘third place’ between work and home, a kind of quasi-public meeting place. And so there’s a sense in which Starbucks, like Google and Facebook, is effectively a part of our public infrastructure.

That’s not to say that Starbucks has the legal obligations of a government. That would be a dangerous position to take. But it suggests that the range of ethical obligations we attribute to big companies with an important role in public life are a fit subject for debate. Schultz deserves praise, I think, for taking a good first step by presenting his reasoning openly, and making it fodder for public discussion.

The Food Industry: When Ethics Just Isn’t Enough

The issue of ethics in the food industry never really goes away, but there are times when it garners more than its usual share of headlines. About a month ago, the New York Times published a lengthy piece called “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” by Michael Moss, author of “Salt Sugar Fat.” The piece is a riveting look at the often-cynical moves made within the food industry within recent decades to use our tastebuds against us, to use our love of salt and sugar and fat to persuade us to buy products that are making us more overweight and less healthy.

The next headline had to do with NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to push back by banning supersized sugary drinks. The move had many fans. Not among those fans: Starbucks, which said it simply would not comply, the American Beverage Association, and New York State Court Judge Milton Tingling, who accepted the ABA’s request to block Bloomberg’s plan.

Most recently, and related to all of the above, the New York Times recently ran an opinion piece on the need to impose stricter regulations on food companies in order to slow the industry’s otherwise seemingly inexorable march toward ever more addictive, and less healthy, prepared foods. The piece was written by a guy named Michael Mudd, a former executive VP at Kraft, no less.

Mudd’s key point is essentially that if the food industry is going to be reined in, government is going to have to do it, since the industry shows little interest in restraining itself. In other words, to borrow Mudd’s words, government is going to have to “force ethics” on the industry.

There are at least two significant problems with framing the issue this way.

The first problem has to do with chalking it all up to a lack of ethics. This is entirely the wrong diagnosis. Or, to be precise, even if the food industry suffers from an ethics deficit, that deficit is not necessarily the root cause of the problem. The unfortunate truth is that there are some problems for which “more ethics” simply is not a viable solution. Ethics is about finding rules that make social living better, but it assumes some overlap of interests. In particular, ethics only works where we have a shared sense that our lives—or our businesses—would go better if we followed a few rules. Ethics isn’t fundamentally about self-sacrifice; it’s about mutual restraint for mutual benefit. That’s why ethics is generally important in business: harmony is good for business. But it’s still a competitive game, and at the end of the day all the competitors want to win. Unless you can show the food industry that its interests will somehow be promoted by playing by a different set of rules, then an ethical solution just isn’t in the cards.

There’s a second reason why ethics isn’t enough. Ethics involves restraint on self-interested (or profit-seeking) behaviour. But the notion of restraint presumes some understanding of where to draw lines. But consider the dilemma faced by any company that sells a fundamentally sugary or fatty food, like Coke or Twinkies or Doritos. These products are delicious, and harmless if consumed as most of us consume them, namely in moderation. When the Coca Cola Company sells me a can of coke, it does absolutely nothing remotely unethical. I’m a grownup, well-informed about the nutritional characteristics of Coke, and besides this one coke is meaningless, health-wise.

But, yes yes, we all know that anyone drinking too much Coke is going to suffer ill effects, and a society that drinks too much Coke is going to suffer too. But how much is too much? No one can say. And simply imploring the Coca Cola Company to “be more ethical” is useless, here. True, we can implore them not to advertise in a way that targets kids, or not to promote ridiculously huge servings, but that leaves the fundamental paradox of their product untouched. Even a scrupulously ethical — indeed, saintly — Coca Cola Company would still find itself uncertain as to how to market its product. How would you sell a product that many people enjoy harmlessly, but that in the aggregate causes trouble?

Finally, the plea for “more ethics” in the food industry misses entirely the fact that that the food industry’s pattern of supplying us with excessive quantities of fat and sugar and salt constitutes a classic social dilemma, a situation in which each person’s (or company’s) behaviour is individually reasonable, but collectively disastrous. We’re poisoning ourselves with junk food for the same reason we’re burdening our atmosphere with giant quantities of carbon dioxide. Not because we’re stupid or unethical, but because my own efforts to reduce carbon emissions (or yours, or yours, or yours) are neither necessary nor sufficient to make a difference. Coke can’t solve the obesity problem. Nor can McDonalds. Nor Kraft. Nor… you get the picture.

So, yes, feel free to call for greater regulation of the food industry. But recognize that in doing so you’re not calling for more ethics. You’re admitting that even ethical companies can produce unwanted outcomes. A good understanding of the role of ethics in business must include some appreciation of the range of problems at hand, including the ones for which ethics is unnecessary, as well as the ones for which ethics simply is not enough.

Opus Dei Sues Game Publisher

As you may have heard, Opus Dei, a branch of the Catholic church, is suing a Danish game publisher, Dema Games, for alleged infringement of its trademark. The game is called “Opus Dei: Existence After Religion.”

The case is pretty much entirely without moral merit. Never mind the David-vs-Goliath image raised by the thought of the powerful Catholic prelature focusing its lawyers’ energies on a tiny Danish publisher. Beyond that, there’s no indication that Opus Dei, the organization itself, is portrayed in any way in the game. So this is unlike the dispute that went on back in 2006, when Opus Dei tried to get Sony to remove references to the organization from the movie version of The DaVinci Code. The issue in the present case is simply whether the organization has the right to control how its name is used.

Trademark protection is effectively a limit on free speech. You can say whatever you want, generally, but you can’t help yourself to words or phrases that are specifically used by other people for commercial purposes. Opus Dei isn’t what we would normally think of as a “commercial” organization, but close enough: its name is the “mark” under which it carries out its “trade.” So it has some claim to a trademark. On the other hand, the words “opus Dei” are just a phrase with multiple uses. As those of you who remember your high school Latin will recall, “opus dei” is translated “work of God.”

This case might best be thought of a question of free speech versus respect for religion. The organization can’t rightly expect to exert worldwide control the use of the two words “opus” and “dei,” words that have many uses in conjunction beyond describing the Catholic group. But on the other hand, should the game publishers relent and remove those words from the title of their game? Opus Dei does have an interest at stake, here, even if it’s not clearly an overriding one embodied in a right. A sufficient degree of respect for the organization and its interests might lead a company to adopt a hands-off policy, regardless of whether the trademark claim is legally enforceable.

All indications are that Dema has no intention of manifesting that level of respect, and I suspect many people — including those who are dismissive or even critical of the Catholic church — will applaud the company in this regard. But what is the unbiased observer to think, from an ethical point of view, about cases of this sort? Here, it is important to recognize the crucial ethical difference between a value, on one hand, and a principle, on the other.

Respect — including respect for other people’s religions — is a value. As such, it is something we generally want to promote. It is good, other things being equal, to demonstrate a degree of respect for other people, and arguably for their religions and the organizations that promote them. Even when we do not support or encourage other people’s beliefs, it is generally a good thing, socially, if we respect them.

Free speech, on the other hand, is a right, and respect for it is a moral duty. And rights and duties tend to be moral absolutes, rather than merely things we want to promote. As a right, free speech is something that is to be breached only under very limited and carefully prescribed circumstances. A right is a line drawn in the sand, and across which we step only when absolutely necessary. When a right (like free speech) and a value (like respect) come into conflict, generally the right has got to win.

Hopefully the Danish court will agree.


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