Archive for the ‘protest’ Category

SodaStream in the West Bank

Controversy continues to bubble over the SodaStream countertop carbonator. The popular home gadget — used to turn regular tap water into a variety of fizzy drinks — has generated controversy due to the fact that SodaStream operates a manufacturing plant in the occupied West Bank. For some, raging against the SodaStream is just part of a larger effort to boycott Israeli products, or at least products made in the occupied territories. They point out that Israeli settlement in those territories is illegal under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice.

None the less, it is probably tempting for many to shrug their shoulders at the whole thing. Many North Americans without a partisan tie to the issue may just think of the conflict between Israel and Palestine as one of “those” conflicts, “over there.” Consider: for the average middle-aged North American, it’s a conflict that has been making headlines for literally our entire lives, with both sides apparently taking turns at acting badly and no end in sight. It’s understandable if a few of us consider it a wash, declining to take sides and staring blankly when the topic comes up.

SodaStream’s spokesperson, incidentally, is none other than Scarlett Johansson. The Jewish Daily Forward referred to Johansson’s affiliation with the company as an unhelpful ‘normalizing’ of the Israeli occupation. After all, what could be more normal and peaceful than opening up a factory and offering people employment? There’s a sense in which that might be an understatement: building factories on occupied land — any occupied land — could easily be thought of as an act of war.

On the other hand, as defenders of the company point out, the factory is giving jobs to a few hundred Palestinians, and giving someone a job is hardly an act of aggression. For that matter, in most parts of the world it is acknowledged that commerce is generally conducive to peace. The more prosperous people are — roughly, the more they have to lose — the less likely they are to engage in warfare.

Does it matter, either way? From the point of view of outcomes, it’s hard to see much value in avoiding buying a SodaStream, even given a principled objection to operating factories in occupied territory. Your purchase (roughly $80 – $120) isn’t buying guns, or barbed wire. And the fraction-of-a-fraction of the purchase price that ends up contributing to the company’s bottom line isn’t going to either keep SodaStream in business or put them out of it. Your purchase, in other words, is trivial.

But isn’t refusal to buy a SodaStream another example of the growing, and generally positive, trend toward conscious consumerism? It arguably is, but in fact the benefits of conscious consumerism are not as obvious as many would have you think. As my friend, Professor Alexei Marcoux, argues, refusing to do business with someone because you disagree with their values is a dangerous road to go down. Given the huge number of moral disagreements in the world, we should think twice about becoming the sort of people who let such disagreements get in the way of engaging in mutually beneficial trade. That’s not a knock-down argument against any and all principled refusals to do business, but it’s a point worth making.

Now, the conflict between Israel and Palestine is no garden-variety disagreement. But that might just be the point. It’s not at all clear that we should want a controversy so bitter, and so protracted, to occupy our purchasing decisions.

Women, Bank Notes, and Patterns of Inequity

Canada’s government is under fire with regards to gender equity, and business leaders should take notice.

Attention has recently been drawn to a petition calling for women on bank notes. Currently, Canada’s bank notes feature only dead (white) male politicians. Queen Elizabeth is the only woman featured, and she’s not Canadian. The result is that Canadian women, no matter how accomplished or historically significant, are excluded from being celebrated in this high-profile way. The petition notes that Canada’s $50 bill once featured “The Famous 5″ (women instrumental in the fight to acknowledge women’s legal personhood) and Thérèse Casgrain, a Canadian senator who had once been a leader in the women’s suffrage movement in Quebec. But in 2012, those images were replaced with an image of an icebreaker.

Zero representation of Canadian women seems a clear matter of inequity. Of course, it can be pointed out by way of rebuttal that the bills mostly honour dead Prime Ministers, all of whom (the dead ones, that is) happen to be men. But that just means that it’s a case of systemic discrimination, sort of like back when certain police forces required officers to be over 5’10” or something. They didn’t say that women couldn’t be officers; it just happened (*ahem*) to be the case that very few women qualified.

The other thing that might be pointed out is that it’s not as if anyone is asking for anything onerous or expensive, here, in asking for women to be represented. It’s an easy move with plenty of symbolic significance. It’s the respectful thing to do. Other Commonwealth countries have done it. Why couldn’t Canada?

Of course, it’s easy to pick on individual issues like this, and to see them as representing a general attitude of disrespect. And that’s not always fair. So it makes sense to look more generally at what the Government of Canada has done to show its commitment to gender equality.

Let’s start at the top. How has the Government of Canada done at showing commitment to gender equity by, say, appointing women to Cabinet? Well, there are 12 women in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet, out of a total of 39 cabinet ministers. That means Cabinet is 31% women. That’s very roughly proportionate to the number of women in Parliament, since there are currently 76 women sitting in the House of Commons (out of 308 seats, for 25%), and 38 more in the Senate (out of 105, for 36%). But of course it’s nowhere near proportionate to the number of women in the Canadian population, or for that matter on the list of eligible voters. That represents a middling grade at best. This is, after all, 2013.

The Harper government has also been criticized for the under-representation of women on the Supreme Court of Canada. I don’t have a real opinion on this, and I realize that in selecting SCC judges the matter of qualification for the job has to be paramount, far more important in fact than in selection of cabinet ministers. But still, well-informed individuals, including SCC justices, say there’s room for improvement.

Add to this the fact that there have been claims that women’s rights have in fact suffered significant setbacks under Harper’s government.

When you put it that way, the lack of Canadian women on Canadian banknotes looks a little more significant, more like part of a pattern than an aberration.

What’s the take-away for business leaders? If you don’t want to have every decision and policy questioned from an equity point of view, make sure your track record on the issue is one that reassures, rather than provoking cynicism or outright antagonism.

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.

Kinder Morgan and the Ethics of Public Consultation

Energy company Kinder Morgan ran head-first into the complex ethics of public consultation last week. The company shut down an information session in Victoria, British Columbia, in response to what the company is calling “vandalism” of some of its on-site signs. The so-called “vandals” tell a slightly different story: they say all they did was peacefully replace the company’s signs with their own placards.

Public consultation is a regular part of business for many companies these days, especially those in the energy and extractive industries. In some cases, public consultation is required by legislation; in other cases, it’s just good business sense. But none of that means that all companies are going to be at ease with the process. To say that public consultation is common is not to say it is easy. For starters, the word “public” is too broad to provide clarity about what the process even amounts to. You’re not really going to consult the entire public. So who should you consult? The activist public? The educated public? The elected or appointed representatives of the public?

For that matter, how do you even label the process? Without harping too much on words, consider the difference in attitude implied by the terms “public consultation,” “public information,” and “public engagement.” The public’s perception of the process is liable to vary considerably depending on the way the process is labeled, never mind what it implies about the role the thing is going to play in a business’s operations.

From an ethical point of view, public consultation has two distinct objectives. First, consultation is a sign of respect, a way of saying to concerned individuals and groups, “We think you matter.” The other ethically-significant reason for public consultation is to gather input that might actually affect decision-making. Unanticipated concerns can easily come to light; asking people what they care about can be much more effective than guessing. These twin objectives — expressing respect and seeking information — provide hints as to how the process needs to go.

Of course, the information gathering goal is the easy part. Give people a microphone and they’ll talk. A company still needs to make an effort to get the right people in front of the mic, but that’s not rocket science.

The harder part is how to show respect, especially when the project at hand is a controversial one over which tempers are likely to flare. Like, say, a pipeline. And that’s where Kinder Morgan ran aground, in a mutual failure of respect. It’s not nice to mess with someone’s signs, but it behooves a company to respond to such things by taking the high road. After all, a company in the energy sector needs to not just show up; it needs to be good at this stuff. In public consultation, the kind of sophistication that befits a first-rate company means more than glossy handouts. It means being able to roll with the punches, because sometimes that’s what respectful dialogue requires.

Occupy, One Year Later

Today is the nominal anniversary of the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement. On September 17 of last year protestors took control of Zuccotti Park, a private park not far from Wall Street in New York. The undercurrents and indeed the planning can be traced farther back, but September 17 was the day the world took notice. The protestors stayed at the park, their numbers ebbing and flowing, until finally forced out on November 15, 2011. The movement did of course spread well beyond Zuccotti Park; indeed the protest was mirrored in towns and cities across the US, and indeed across the world. But Zuccotti, a stone’s throw from Wall Street, remains the spiritual home base for the Occupy movement.

The aims of the movement were diffuse, though not as vague as critics sometimes claimed they were. The protestors were concerned most specifically with income inequality, with the sense that those who hold the reins of the various great steam horses of capitalism were hoarding for themselves a wildly disproportionate share of the world’s wealth. This led naturally to a concern with capitalism itself, with the tendency of major corporations to behave badly, and with the government’s tendency (according to protestors) to let corporations get away with it. As a result, the movement’s name came to be used as a virtual synonym for concern with corporate ethics.

It’s hard not to sympathize with the goals of the movement, or at least with the passion of those most centrally involved. We can question the precision of their targeting, and the efficacy of the sit-in as method of producing social change, but only the shallow and the oblivious could fail to see that there was something to the protestors’ complaints. The financial collapse of 2008-2009 did enormous damage to millions of lives, and left a great many people with a deep sadness, a feeling of alienation, a deep and persistent sense of injustice and that the system is somehow rigged.

But motives aside, a year later, the question on every commentator’s mind is “What did they accomplish? Certainly Occupy succeeded in putting income inequality on the map, so to speak. As others have pointed out, Occupy is the central reason that presidential candidates this time around must comment on inequality. Not that that hasn’t been a topic of discussion in previous elections, but this time it’s utterly unavoidable. Consciousness of the topic has been raised, though it remains to be seen whether that consciousness will matter at the polling booth.

But really, the movement’s impact has been more cultural than economic. It spawned a number of memes — occupy-this-or-that, and the 99%-vs-1% thing. As a meme, “occupy” has been a victim of its own success. Had it been slightly less catchy, it might actually have been a useful rallying cry. But no sooner had the slogan been uttered in earnest than a thousand copycats, earnest or mocking or simply silly, sprouted on Facebook and Twitter. Occupy the dean’s office! Occupy the Death Star! Occupy my couch! Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also a good way to devalue a currency.

Alas, concrete examples of change that could plausibly be traced to the Occupy movement are hard to come by. No new grassroots movement doing anything beyond sit-ins and marches. No significant new activist organization with the organizational capacity to take effective action toward promote real change according to a clear agenda. Nor has Occupy made any noticeable moves in the realm of electoral politics; and however cynical you want to be about that system, it is still a crucial part of getting things done. The point is not to occupy Wall Street, but to change it.

In retrospect, perhaps all we can say at this point is that while the Occupy movement struck a nerve, and perhaps fostered conversation, what it has failed to do is inspire change. Whether real change is in the offing, and whether important change will ever be attributable to the sparks that originated in Zuccotti park remains to be seen.

The Problems With the “People’s Rights Amendment”

Corporate personhood is one of the most badly misunderstood concepts in discussions of corporate behaviour and responsibility. It is also one of the most essential tools for promoting human wellbeing and protecting individual human liberties.

People get angry — understandably and often justifiably angry — when they see instances in which corporations have too much power. But the response, the way such anger is directed, is not always constructive. Indeed, sometimes it’s downright counterproductive.

Witness, for example, the recent move in the US to propose a “People’s Rights Amendment.” (It’s a project of citizens group “Free Speech for People”, and the bill was introduced in congress by Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.) This is a hail-Mary attempt to amend the US Constitution, largely in response to the US Supreme Courth’s controversial Citizens United decision. That decision, rooted in constitutional arguments about free speech, removed certain limits on corporate political donations. Like many people, I worry about the effects of that decision; but I worry even more about the potentially disastrous effects of the proposed remedies.

Now, a lot of people believe that the US Supreme Court, in the Citizens United decision, invented the notion of Corporate Personhood. That belief is both false and wildly US-centric. But aside from getting history wrong, this belief has resulted in a backlash that has included some wrong-headed proposals for shifting the balance of power back to The People. And the People’s Rights Amendment is one of those.

Here are the 3 sections of the proposed “People’s Rights Amendment”:

Section 1. We the people who ordain and establish this Constitution intend the rights protected by this Constitution to be the rights of natural persons.

Section 2. People, person, or persons as used in this Constitution does not include corporations, limited liability companies or other corporate entities established by the laws of any state, the United States, or any foreign state, and such corporate entities are subject to such regulation as the people, through their elected state and federal representatives, deem reasonable and are otherwise consistent with the powers of Congress and the States under this Constitution.

Section 3. Nothing contained herein shall be construed to limit the people’s rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free exercise of religion, and such other rights of the people, which rights are inalienable.

There are two problems here, and they are rooted in Sections 2 and 3 respectively.

Note that Section 2 says that incorporated entities don’t get constitutional rights at all. So that means, for example, no 4th Amendment limits on search and seizure of corporate property. So, under this proposed Amendment, no one’s investments — not your stock portfolio, not your RRSP, not your pension plan — is immune from arbitrary seizure by the state. It also means that a corporation would have no right to due process when charged with a crime. The implications for shareholders and employees, here, are potentially disastrous. Under the People’s Rights Amendment, any corporation you’ve invested in, or where you work, could effectively be seized and shut down without cause, without trial, without explanation. This surely limits corporate power, but at enormous cost — namely an enormous increase in the power of the state. Not the people; the state.

I should also add that this Amendment seems also to apply also to unions, nonprofits, and churches. None of them would, under the People’s Rights Amendment, retain these rights against the state, and all would be enormously vulnerable.

But all of that only matters if Section 3 doesn’t exist, because Section 3, if taken seriously, guts the whole thing. Section 3 reasserts that people, human beings, do have rights, and that nothing in Section 2 can be construed as limiting those rights. So as the owner of a corporation, or as a shareholder in one, Section 3 assures you that your property — including presumably the property of the corporation you own, or the property of the corporation from which you derive dividends — cannot be subject to unreasonable search and seizure, and cannot be confiscated without due process. Whew!

The point here is that people, real flesh-and-blood people, rely on business corporations and other ‘corporate entities’ in a huge number of ways. They are how we make our living. They are the instruments of our collective success. Where the power of those instruments needs to be limited, as it surely sometimes does, it cannot be done by pulling the rug out from under individual, human liberties. And so if corporate power is to be reined in, it will have to be done through a mechanism considerably less clumsy than the People’s Rights Amendment.

McDonald’s and the Ethics of Olympic Sponsorship

McDonald’s has been taking some heat over its continuing sponsorship of the Olympics. The fast-food chain recently announced that it would remain a top sponsor of the Olympic games through 2020.

The main charge here seems to be some form of hypocrisy. Critics suppose that there’s some sort of contradiction involved in a sporting event being sponsored by a fast-food chain. But there is, of course, no contradiction at all — at least not for those of use who take both our sports and our junk food in moderation. True, a diet that includes frequent trips to McDonald’s (or Burger King or Wendy’s, etc. etc.) seems inconsistent with a lifestyle aimed at maximal athletic output. There’s a real conflict there. But few of us are aiming at elite sporting status, and relatively few of us (thankfully) make Big Macs a staple. Most of us enjoy both sport and junk food in moderation. For us, the occasional serving of greasy fries does absolutely no harm at all to our athletic aspirations. There’s no contradiction in loving, say, both a Quarter Pounder With Cheese and training for a Half Marathon. So there’s no inherent contradiction involved in McD’s sponsoring the Olympics.

And really, if anyone is to blame, it’s not McDonald’s but the International Olympic Committee, and/or whatever subcommittees or functionaries are assigned the task of signing sponsors. After all, it’s their supposed values, not the fast-food chain’s, that this sponsorship deal presumably violates.

But supposed value-conflicts aside: what about the effect of such the McDonalds/Olympics alliance on, for example, kids? Well, note to start that kids don’t watch the olympics much. As for the rest of us, well we need to come to grips with the fact that our economic system features certain warts. And one of those warts is that the freedom to buy-and-sell means the freedom to sell things the over-consumption of which is harmful. And the freedom to sell such things implies the freedom to advertise them. Is affiliation with McDonald’s jeopardizing the positive impact of the Olympics? So be it. Our system of free commerce is a system that brings with it enormous benefits, far more benefits than will ever be derived from one hypertrophied sporting event.

Wall Street Needs to be Fixed, Not Occupied

Issues of corporate ethics are too important to leave to the Occupy Wall Street gang. The principles the group is fighting for are noble ones, but the tools they employ leave much to be desired. It’s up to the rest of us to use better tools.

Those currently camped out in New York, and other cities across the US, are right to want better corporate ethics, including a big dose of accountability and transparency. And they’re right to want to live in a just and equitable society. And they’re right to want certain kinds of electoral reform: finding ways to limit the influence of corporations (without stomping on free speech) would be a very good thing. But occupying Wall St. isn’t going to do it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m there, in spirit. Well, not there there. I’m not likely to join the sit-in anytime soon; those methods aren’t my methods. But I sympathize with the frustration manifested by the passionate, non-partisan cabal of well-intentioned folks who make up the Occupy Wall Street movement. Indeed, though our methods are radically different, I’ve dedicated my career to some of the same ideals. I’m committed to the project of figuring out the best possible standards for corporate structures and behaviours, and I hope that better understanding will lead, indirectly, to better outcomes. The folks of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement likely think my way won’t won’t have much impact. Don’t worry, I’m not taking it personally.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has substantial symbolic significance, but we all know, I think, that nothing concrete is going to come of it. To start with, the mechanism is all wrong — it’s not like corporate and political elites are going to see a sit-in, and suddenly going to smack their foreheads and say, “Oh, ok! Let’s make changes!” And then there’s the movement itself. It’s pretty clear by now that the loosely-organized movement doesn’t have much in the way of concrete goals. And its spokespeople can barely open their mouths on topics related to business and economics without saying things that are grossly mistaken. Their values are right, but the mechanisms they envision to implement those values — things like repealing corporate personhood — are deeply misguided. But then, to look for direct impact is, as others have observed, likely a mistake, and misses the real significance of the movement.

So it would be easy — too easy ‐ to dismiss Occupy Wall Street as a bunch of well-intentioned young people tilting at windmills. But that would be a mistake. The windmills they’re tilting at are important ones.

The real value of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it ought to serve as a kick in the pants to the rest of us, an inspiration to make use of tools that will do some real good. Let’s leverage their energy into effective methods. So think. Learn about the issues. Learn about corporate governance. Advocate reform. Organize. Get out the vote. If Occupying Wall Street is to have any real impact, it won’t be by motivating a few hundred more people to camp out in the street.

PETA Promises Porn With a Purpose

Is it just me, or has PETA jumped the shark? The always-provocative animal-rights organization is at it again, this time announcing that it’s planning on starting its own porn site to draw attention to the plight of animals. And once again it’s alienating groups that it ought to consider allies.

See this version of the story, by Madeleine White, for the Globe and Mail: PETA to launch porn website: Is this still about animal rights?

The animal rights group, known for its naturalist ways, has registered the domain name peta.xxx and plans to launch a pornography website in December that “draws attention to the plight of animals….”

Not surprisingly, many feminists (in the broadest sense of the term) have objected. The general line of argument is that you’re not really accomplishing anything if you’re raising awareness for one cause (say, animal suffering) by doing damage to another cause (say, sexual equality). When PETA uses naked bodies, they are almost always female bodies, portrayed and instrumentalized as sex objects. Porn, in other words, is pretty problematic as a consciousness-raising tool.

Now none of this assumes that all porn is automatically a bad thing. It is, by definition, naughty, and certainly controversial, but there’s little reasoned objection against portrayals of nudity or sexuality per se. Any sane objection has to be rooted in things like objectification, which is not a necessary ingredient of porn, though it is certainly a common one. Of course, no one knows yet just what kind of porn PETA has in mind, but the group’s history suggests that we shouldn’t expect anything terribly progressive.

Why does the group use such tactics in the first place? PETA claims that they have no choice:

Unlike our opposition, which is mostly composed of wealthy industries and corporations, PETA must rely on getting free “advertising” through media coverage.

But that’s not exactly true. According to PETA’s financial report, the organization has about a $36 million budget, overall, out of which it spends about $11 million on “Public Outreach and Education.”

It perhaps goes without saying that any for-profit corporation that tried to set up such a website to draw attention to its product would draw fire, too. But of course it is utterly unthinkable that Coca-Cola or Microsoft would set up an entire porn site just to draw attention to their products. That’s not to say that lots of companies don’t use sex in their advertising, but no mainstream company would ever go so far as to use actual porn to reach an audience. But then, PETA isn’t a for-profit corporation, but rather a not-for-profit corporation, one that exists to promote animal rights. But is objectification of female bodies for a cause different than objectification of female bodies for money, ethically speaking? PETA will surely say “yes.” After all, this is porn for a good cause, not just for its own sake, and not just to generate filthy profits. But it’s worth remembering that PETA’s values, and the goals it seeks, are far from universal. We’re not talking about, say, world hunger or literacy. And there are all kinds of for-profit companies that produce products that make the world a better place in tangible, agreed-upon ways.

Maybe the problem with PETA isn’t (just) that their campaigns objectify women, but that they are cavalier about doing so. They’re single-minded in pursuit of their objectives, and sex is just one more tool for them to use in pursuing it. An organization that’s supposedly committed to getting us to think about the plight of animals can’t afford to be seen as clueless about other ethical issues.

The “BlackBerry Riots” — What Should RIM Do?

The intersection of social media with social unrest is a massive topic these days. Twitter has been credited with playing an important role in coordinating the pro-democracy protests in Egypt, and Facebook played a role in helping police track down culprits after the Vancouver hockey riots.

But the mostly-unstated truth behind these “technologies of the people” is that they are corporate technologies, ones developed, fostered, and controlled by companies. That means power for those companies. And, as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.

Fast-forward to early August 2011. London is burning, and the riots have spread to a couple other major UK cities. The British government has called in a few thousand extra cops. And again, social media is playing a role. But this time the focus is specifically on Research in Motion’s (RIM’s) BlackBerry, and its use as a social networking tool. There have been all kinds of reports that the BlackBerry’s “BBM” messaging has been the tool of choice for coordination among London’s rioters. RIM is probably asking itself right now whether it’s really true that ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity.’

Distancing itself from its role in the “BlackBerry Riots,” RIM issued (via Twitter) the following:

We feel for those impacted by the riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can.

The “in any way we can” part is intriguing. So, what can, and what should, RIM do? One thing they can do is to help authorities identify those inciting violence by breaking through the security of the BBM messages. But as reported here, “RIM refused to say exactly how much information it would be sharing with police.” The other, much more dramatic, thing that RIM could do would be to temporarily shut down all or part of its network. Whether that would be at all useful is open to question. It would certainly make a lot of people angry, including millions of people who are not involved in the riots, or who are relying on their BlackBerries to keep in touch with loved ones during this crisis. But I point out this option just to illustrate the breadth of options open to RIM.

The question is complicated by questions of precedence. Tech companies have come under fire for assisting governments in, for example, China, to crack down on dissidents. Of course, the UK government isn’t anything like China’s repressive regime. But at least some people are pointing to underlying social unrest, unemployment etc., in the UK as part of the reason — if not justification — for the riots. And besides, even if it’s clear that the UK riots are unjustifiable and that the UK government is a decent one, companies like RIM are global companies, engaged in a whole spectrum of social and political settings, ones that will stubbornly refuse to be categorized. Should a tech company help a repressive regime stifle peaceful protest? No. Should a tech company help a good and just government fight crime? Yes. But with regard to governments, as with regard to social unrest, there’s much more grey in the world than black and white.

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