When is Accommodating Religious Requirements Unethical?

Religious requirements that imply contempt for half the human species cannot be supported, even in cases where accommodating them implies no real hardship, and no demonstrable violation of anyone’s rights.

As was widely reported in the media, controversy arose recently after a York University professor (here in Toronto) declined a student’s request to be excused, on religious grounds, from a group work assignment that was part of an online course. The student claimed that his religion forbade him from interacting in person with women, something that the group work would have made necessary. The professor declined the request, but university administrators attempted to overturn that decision, on the grounds that religious requirements must be accommodated where possible, under Ontario’s Human Rights Code.

It’s tempting, but ultimately unproductive, to get caught up on the particularities of the case. Which religion was involved? What does it really demand? Is in-person group work OK a reasonable requirement in the first place, for an online course? Is group work central to the pedagogical mission of the university or of the course? For our purposes, all of that is beside the point. Decision-makers, in such a case, must of course attend diligently to such details. But for those of us interested in debating the principles at stake, the details may actually confuse things.

Best to stick to the fundamentals: a male student, requesting on religious grounds, to be excepted from a group-work assignment that would have required that he work with — interact with — female classmates.

Two questions arise.

First, should religious requirements be accommodated at all? There is broad agreement, I think, that reasonable efforts should be made to accommodate religious belief and practice. It would be a bad thing, in a society that believes in freedom of religion, to tell people that adhering to their religions means exclusion from university or healthcare or for that matter from employment. It is generally (though not universally) believed that religious commitments are particularly deep and meaningful ones, central to a person’s self-identity, and so limiting someone’s expression of their devotion to their religion is significantly worse than, say, interfering with their interest in watching their favourite TV show.

Second, if we are willing to accommodate religion, what specific kinds of requests ought not be accepted? The usual route is to say that only “reasonable” accommodations must be made — not ones that disrupt operations, or that impose onerous costs, or that jeopardize safety. So, modifying dress codes to accommodate religious dress requirements is generally OK. Allowing people a few minutes during the day to pray is OK. And so on. But anything that would jeopardize health and safety (e.g., a religious head covering that precludes the wearing of a safety helmet) doesn’t have to be accommodated.

But the two exceptions explicitly allowed here in Ontario — “undue hardship” (i.e., cost), on one hand, and health-and-safety, on the other — fail to capture one other important factor, namely the non-safety rights of other members of the institution. But clearly institutions (public or private) have an obligation to protect the rights of their members — their students, their patients, their employees. Luckily, cases in which religious accommodation comes up against the rights of others have been relatively few.

Toronto lawyer Kenneth Krupat has a useful blog entry outlining a few legal precedents involving a clash of rights.

In the cases Krupat cites, the general trend is that religion will be accommodated only up to the point where it interferes with someone else’s rights. So that’s (again, very roughly) the legal standard. But I think the ethical standard could be stricter still. For even if religious accommodation doesn’t literally violate someone else’s rights — if, for instance, accommodating the student in the case above weren’t found to have violated his female classmates’ right to equal treatment — there would still be grounds for denying the request. Some religious requirements should not be accommodated simply because they are unacceptable on principle. Yes, religious conviction is worthy of respect. But all religions evolve, and do so in part because the views of individual members of those religions evolve, as do their interpretations of specific religious requirements. Rather than accommodate religious beliefs that hold half the human species in contempt, we ought to gently encourage those who hold such beliefs to reconsider them.

What Can an Ethics Course Really Do?

The only thing nearly as common as the view that business schools should pay greater attention to ethics are heartfelt expressions of the view that doing so is in fact useless.

Typically, skepticism about ethics education is rooted in a mistaken view of what the goals of such education are. If you think that giving students a course in ethics is supposed to “make them into good people,” then of course you’re going to think it’s useless. An ethics professor can’t turn bad people into good ones, any more than she can turn water into wine. Luckily, that’s really not what’s needed, and so doing so it’s not the aim of any sane ethics course.

The most recent volley in this ongoing debate is a short blog entry on Forbes, written by MBA student Lachlan Magee. Magee admits to some skepticism about the idea of teach ethics in a formal educational setting. After all, he says, ethics comes from “a person’s environment and inherent motivations.” But he goes on to say some very sensible things about the connection between ethics and white collar crime, and the value of teaching students about how easy it is to slide into engaging in such crime. What Magee rightly implies (though he doesn’t quite put it this way) is that the reason we don’t need to worry about turning bad people into good people is that most wrongdoing in corporate settings is actually done by good, honest folks to make bad choices, sometimes due to spectacular pressure and often aided by a range of self-serving rationalizations. When the pressure is on to “make the numbers,” it can be awfully appealing to tell yourself that “everybody does it” and that “no one is really getting hurt, anyway.”

(Magee’s piece is actually a guest blog, posted by Forbes contributor Walt Pavlo. Pavlo knows what he’s talking about when it comes to workplace wrongdoing: he did 3 years in a US prison about a decade ago, for his role in the MCI fraud. He has since then dedicated himself to helping others avoid his mistakes.)

So what can courses in ethics offer? There are as many approaches to teaching ethics as there are ethics instructors. But here are a handful of ideas that have influenced my own teaching. They could also prove useful for in-house ethics training.

First, as Magee suggests, a course in ethics can help students understand the dangers of rationalization. A lot of bad behaviour goes on because good people tell themselves that such behaviour is not, in fact, bad. In the vast majority of cases, such rationalizations are rooted in very poor reasoning — reasoning which, if made explicit, would be clearly and transparently untenable. A course in ethics gives students an opportunity to look at some of the most important rationalizations, in order to examine them under the cold, dispassionate light of logic.

Second, a course in ethics can quite simply give students the opportunity to talk, at length, about ethics, something they likely wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to do. This can have several different positive effects. First, it can make students more comfortable talking about topics that might otherwise be too awkward to raise. How can you talk in a constructive way about Conflict of Interest, for example, if you’ve never even uttered the words before? A chance to talk at length about ethics in a classroom setting can also reveal to students that not everyone shares their views on ethics, and that they shouldn’t be so cocky. The student who thinks it “obvious” that the bottom line is all that matters can find out that — lo and behold! — not everyone thinks that way. An ethics course can also give students a chance to enunciate their own values in a constructive way. A student who finds herself repeatedly speaking, from the heart, in a safe classroom setting, about the importance of treating people fairly may come to realize that that’s an important part of who she is. She may then find it easier to speak up when she observes injustice in the workplace.

Finally — and here it shows that I’m a philosopher by training, and in fact used to teach in a philosophy department — there’s even something practical to be gained by having students read theoretical, scholarly articles on business ethics. Such articles can have two benefits. First, if chosen carefully they can exemplify for students what first-rate reasoning about ethics actually looks like. In other words, good articles on ethics are effectively special-topic exemplars of advanced critical thinking skills. Students who study such first-rate reasoning in the classroom stand a better chance of being able to engage in solid ethical reasoning in the workplace. A further benefit of exposure to scholarly articles is that such articles tend to be relatively high-minded: they call on readers to think carefully about ethics, and to take the ideas of moral obligation seriously. This is not to say that reading such articles will immediately change anyone’s behaviour, but it’s good to know that my students go out into the workplace — with all its pressures and temptations — having read some things that will pull them, even gently, in kinder and nobler directions.

CEO Salaries and Justice

A recent study about CEO pay in Canada has been getting a fair bit of attention lately. This is unsurprising, both because executive compensation has become one of the hot topics of the day (or rather, of the post-Occupy era) and because the study highlights the fact that if you look at the top 100 Canadian CEOs (in terms of salary), the average top-100 CEO earns as much in four hours as the average Canadian makes in an entire year (i.e., about $46k).

So Canadian (and American) CEOs are highly-paid, for sure. Whether they are too highly-paid is another question. I’ve pointed out before that, well, the issue is complicated. Just about everyone recognizes that CEO pay is at least sometimes out of whack. But is the pattern problematic? From a moral point of view, the pattern of CEO pay raises two key questions: first, are shareholders (and others who benefit from competent corporate leadership) getting their money’s worth? And second, do current patterns of CEO compensation contribute to an overall social distribution of wealth that is unjust?

It’s useful to remember that a CEO’s salary (or, more accurately, his or her total compensation) is just the price of his or her services. And part of the problem is that there’s no “real” or “natural” price for CEO labour (or for anything else), nothing to serve as a comparison point to figure out if such labour is being sold at the “right” price. So one common alternative is to compare it to the price of the “average” person’s labour, or in some cases, to the price of the labour of the lowest-paid person in the organization. The latter is truly a case of comparing apples and oranges. Unskilled labour is like air. It’s plentiful, relative to demand, and so no one needs to pay very much to get it.

Another option is to compare CEO compensation to the value they bring to the organization. That’s hard to do, for a number of reasons. Not all value is directly reflected in financial impact, and a company’s financials can go up or down with the market (or to reflect external factors such as new competition) in ways that simply do not reflect the quality of leadership. But a recent study by the Clarkson Centre at the University of Toronto suggested that CEO pay in Canada is more closely aligned with performance than people generally think.

The social question — about the social distribution of income — is easier to answer, but harder to solve. Yes, mega-salaries for CEOs are contributing to income disparities. That’s a mathematical fact. And even those of us who believe fervently in the value of free markets can see that it’s not a good thing that a CEO can afford to build a $50-million home while others living in the same country can’t afford a roof over their head at all. It is unjust by almost any measure, socially divisive, and potentially socially disruptive. But such critique does not immediately imply a solution. It doesn’t imply that any particular CEO isn’t worth the money, and it doesn’t imply that any particular Board is obligated to do the impossible, namely to “fix” the big problem of social inequity by paying its own CEO less.

If you need further evidence of the complexity of this issue, consider this. One Canadian business professor recently suggested that CEOs would be welcome to keep their high salaries, on condition that those they stopped outsourcing jobs. That way, working-class Canadian could at least keep their humble jobs. But consider: if you’re really interested in social justice, you might well insist that Canadian CEOs continue outsourcing to foreign countries, where workers surely need the jobs (on average) much more than (most) Canadians do. After all, the average Canadian salary is as lavish from the point of view of someone living in the Congo or in Liberia as a Canadian CEO’s salary is from the point of view of the average Canadian.

Business and Government: Lobbying vs Capitulating

Should the public be more worried when powerful corporations try to sway government, or when they capitulate to them?

Or, to put it another way, if the public worries when big business lobbies government, should it also worry when big business lobbies government to protect something the public cares about, such as privacy?

Case in point: Google, Facebook, Apple, and other tech companies have joined forces to launch a new campaign aimed at curtailing government use of the companies’ networks and data for surveillance and intelligence purposes. The campaign included an open letter to US President Barack Obama asking for tighter controls on government’s attempts to access information gathered and retained by the companies in the course of business. Privacy advocates are bound to be pleased, given the enormous quantity of information the companies hold, and the previously unimagined level of access that we now realize the US government in particular has been seeking, and obtaining.

But this move means that these massive corporations are trying to shift government policy on a particular issue. They are, in other words, lobbying. And lobbying is an activity that makes a lot of people uncomfortable: they worry that corporations, with their slick hired-gun lobbyists and their deep pockets, are simply too influential and too liable to get their way too often. Indeed, some people think corporate lobbying should be outlawed. Many more think there should be serious limits on what corporations can do, and in particular on what they can spend, to try to get their way.

So which makes us more uncomfortable: the idea of big business collaborating with government (whether in the US or in China), or the idea of big business using its persuasive powers to resist government?

Of course, we don’t necessarily have to choose. Some will want to eat their cake and have it too. Corporate influence is usually bad, they’ll say. But this time is different. This time, corporations are fighting the good fight. In trying to get Big Brother to stop peeking in the window, they’ll say, these internet giants are fighting on the side of right.

That’s an awkward position to hold if you’re used to arguing against the evils of corporate influence. It’s a bit like watching the town bully beat up someone who really deserved it: you might well like the outcome today, but still be worried that there’s someone in town with that much punching power, and that much willingness to use it. And note the difficulty of putting in place any limit on lobbying that allows public-good lobbying but forbid narrow, self-interested lobbying: the distinction is far too subjective, and it if far too difficult to determine from the outside just what a corporation’s interest are, in the eyes of internal strategists.

In the end, I come down on the side of a relatively permissive set of standards. We should keep worrying, and stay watchful, but in the end it is better that tens of thousands of corporations try to influence government — all pulling in slightly different directions — than that they all mindlessly bend to government’s will.

Instead of ‘Buy Nothing,’ Why Not Buy for Impact?

For many Americans (and a growing number of Canadians) Friday, November 29th is Black Friday, a day of rock-bottom prices and a chance to buy, buy, buy. But for others, it instead marks a day that has come to be known as Buy Nothing Day, which is supposedly a day to fight against rampant consumerism by, well, buying nothing. The theory is apparently that if you don’t spend money, you’re taking a stand against over-consumption.

There are several problems with the idea of Buy Nothing Day.

First, as many have recognized, is that anything you don’t buy today you’re just going to end up buying tomorrow. That stereo you resist buying isn’t going to be consumption forgone, just consumption delayed. But the problem is more severe than that, because it is literally impossible to buy less. Every dollar you earn is going to be spent on something, eventually, either by you or by someone else. You can give it away (to someone who will spend it) or you can leave it in your will (to someone who will spend it). The only way to change that is literally to burn your money in the backyard.

The other problem lies in the basic economic fact that a dollar spent by one person is a dollar earned by another. So the dollars you don’t spend today are dollars not going into someone else’s pocket. And in some cases, those are pockets that could really use the dollars.

Yes, I know, it’s about symbolism. Every time I complain about Buy Nothing Day, I’m told I’m missing the point. And that might be true. It is of course no accident that Buy Nothing Day falls on the same day as Black Friday. And even a big fan of commerce has to admit that a shopping frenzy during which elbows are thrown and store employees get trampled is less than a swell thing.

I would simply respond that if you want to do something symbolic, why not do something smarter?

So here’s an idea. If you take seriously the idea that while trade is good, rampant, brainless consumerism is bad, why not commit today to buying a few things you want or need, but give some thought to the other end of the transaction. In particular, buy something from someone who needs it. That might be someone in your own community, or it might be someone (likely someone much worse off) in a far-away land (like Bangladesh).

So instead of buy nothing, how about buying better. Go ahead and buy, if you want, but do your best to buy for impact.

Walmart’s Charity Problem

The twittershpere exploded last week over a report that Walmart was holding a charity food drive to help employees feed their families. Comments ranged from incredulous to outraged. The standard narrative went like this: this just proves that Walmart knows it doesn’t pay enough. They’re appealing to the public to feed their employees.

Even CNN, when they picked up the story, described it this way: “One Wal-Mart store in Ohio is collecting canned food to help its workers feed their families a Thanksgiving dinner.”

The problem with this narrative was that it was mistaken, both factually and morally.

First, it wasn’t a matter of Walmart appealing to the public (or anyone else) to help feed employees. It was employees helping employees. Anyone bothering to read the story (as originally reported in the Cleveland Plain Dealer) would have found that “The food drive tables are tucked away in an employees-only area.”

Second, the food drive wasn’t for the benefit of your average, low-wage-earning Walmart employee. It was for the benefit of employees who were in exceptional need. A Walmart spokesperson was quoted as saying that the charity food drive “…is for associates who have had some hardships come up…Maybe their spouse lost a job.” In fact, the Plain Dealer has since published a follow-up story, which noted that employees at the store in question say they feel hurt by the way their food drive was reported. It clearly stings to have the world hurl shame upon you for trying to help a friend in need.

And note that low wages here are really a red herring. When it comes to workers helping fellow workers in exceptional need, wages aren’t really the issue. If your spouse loses their job, it doesn’t much matter whether you’re making $8 an hour or $12 an hour — you’re going to need short-term help.

Naturally, this won’t satisfy critics. “Still,” they’ll say, Walmart employees are badly paid. And this story is a reminder of that.” And it’s true: wages at Walmart are pretty low. And Walmart is a profitable company. So it could decide simply to give employees more money. Of course, in a market setting, giving people money you don’t owe them as a matter of contract is called “charity.” Now, charity is at least sometimes ethically obligatory. And given the disparity in wealth between Walmart employees (many of whom live below the poverty line) and the Walton family (who control the company, and who are the richest family on earth), this might be a situation where giving beyond what you’re legally required to give might be the right thing to do.

But consider this. The US unemployment rate hovering around 7.5%. That means millions of people unemployed. So ask yourself this question: if Walmart (or the Walton family) decided that it wanted to give, say, an extra hundred million dollars to help alleviate poverty, would it be better, ethically, to use that money to give 2.2 million employees a raise (roughly $50 per year, each) or to give a few thousand additional workers minimum-wage jobs, instead?

Rob Ford’s Leadership Lessons

Life in Rob Ford’s Toronto is at once the best of times and the worst of times, for those of us with an interest in leadership. It is the worst of times because those of us with an interest in leadership enjoy seeing it done well. But it is also — in an admittedly self-serving sense — the ‘best’ of times, because Ford’s abysmal leadership serves as an object lesson in how not to lead, and reminds everyone of just how important leadership really is.

What does an organization — whether it is a city or a corporation — need from a leader? What does Ford have or lack that a business should want in a CEO?

First, you want a leader with vision. Even his detractors have to admit that Ford definitely has that. And it’s what got him elected. Plenty of smart people voted for him because they liked the policy direction he promised to take — or, at least, they liked it better than the alternatives they had been offered. A leader has to have a sense of where he or she wants to lead you. Why would anyone follow someone who isn’t going anywhere you want to go?

Second, though, you want a leader with the organizational skills and the people skills to implement that vision. A leader, in other words, needs more than ideas. Ideas are cheap; the talents required to implement them aren’t. Key among those talents, when it comes to implementing ideas in any reasonably complex organizational setting, is an aptitude for working with people. A leader needs to get along with others. You don’t need to be a devoté of ‘servant leadership’ or an adherent to the notion of ‘leading from behind’ to recognize that leadership typically requires a sensitive appreciation of the talents, motives and desires of a team of people. And it requires a willingness to put in the effort required to find ways to turn varied and often divergent interests into a shared vision. To say that Rob Ford lacks capacity in this regard is to understate the problem.

But vision and people skills are, in a sense, table stakes: you need those things just to get the boat headed in the right direction and to keep it more-or-less on course. But what about when waters are rough? Anyone can captain a boat on calm waters, but the waters of the corporate and political worlds are rarely calm. So the third thing you want is someone with the capacity to keep things cool and keep the mood constructive when times get tough. You need, in other words, someone who is good in a crisis because crisis is almost inevitable. And even those who were entranced by Rob Ford’s promise to “stop the gravy train” have to admit that their mayor is not — most emphatically not — a man who shows grace under pressure.

Toronto is going through a rough time. The city will surely emerge from it. We’ll elect a new mayor and before long Rob Ford will be relegated to YouTube clips of monologues by Jon Stewart and Jimmy Fallon. The risk in all this is that we will fail to learn anything from it. In particular, there has been too much focus on the man himself. And to be sure, there is plenty to criticize there. As the National Post’s Andrew Coyne recently put it, Ford is a man of “limitless ego and unformed character.” We need to get beyond the individual. Every thinking person watching the fiasco that is currently Toronto’s City Hall needs to be asking not just “when will it end?” but also “what can we learn from it?”

The Ethics of Businesses Honouring Remembrance Day

Yesterday was Remembrance Day here in Canada (and Veterans Day in the U.S.) Not only did millions of people take a moment to thank veterans and to honour those who served and those who died in combat, so did quite a few companies. This has always been the case. Storefronts have long featured signs, around this time of year, that said “Thank you to our veterans” or “lest we forget.”

But now we have Twitter and other social media. Now the expression of such sentiments can be even cheaper (in both senses of the word). And the nature of social media is such when a company’s gesture is taken as crossing the line into crass exploitation, it can readily go viral. Some have even suggested that it is disrespectful for companies to Tweet about Remembrance Day at all. After all, companies generally communicate for just one reason, and that’s to build sales.

(I wrote two years ago about the similar problem with businesses memorializing 9/11.)

It’s a fine line, ethically. Because there is little that is nobler than wanting to say ‘thank you’ to those who served and sometimes died so that we can enjoy the freedoms we enjoy. But there is little that is more ugly than using a solemn occasion to one’s own narrow economic advantage.

Ethics is partly about outcomes — we want people to do things that will do more good than harm, and that will be respectful of other people’s rights. But ethics is also about intentions. If the intention behind a Remembrance Day tweet is noble — if the social media staffer who posted the tweet really does just want to express heart-felt thanks — then the tweet is arguably a good thing. But if the tweet emanates from the Marketing department, in a cynical attempt to boost sales by pulling heart-strings, that’s a different matter altogether.

And guess what? Intentions are terribly hard to judge from the outside. That’s at least as true for corporations as it is for individual humans. What did the Hudson’s Bay Company intend in tweeting its thanks to Canada’s armed forces? Is there even an answer to that question, let alone one we could divine from the outside?

So the safe advice, from a PR point of view, might be to avoid the Remembrance Day or Veterans Day tweets altogether. Even if your intentions are pure, avoiding the tweets means you avoid the possibility of being misunderstood. But from an ethical point of view, there may be times when a company with the right intentions should craft its message carefully (to minimize the risk of the sentiment being misunderstanding) and send it anyway.

What’s Your Duty When Your Boss is Out of Control?

What are an employee’s responsibilities when the boss is out of control — when he or she is self-destructive, doing damage to the organization, or both? It’s one of the hardest problems of workplace ethics.

A case in point is the staff at Toronto’s City Hall, who have and continue to labour under Mayor Rob Ford, a mayor whose strange and erratic behaviour must make continuing the city’s work all but impossible. And bad news continues to pile up for Ford. This past week Toronto Police revealed that they were in possession of a certain video, one that apparently shows the mayor smoking crack, a video the existence of which the mayor had previously denied. And then details surfaced regarding Ford’s behaviour on St Patrick’s day of last year, when he showed up ‘very intoxicated,’ both at City Hall and in public.

Ford has been, in effect, a train wreck. But not exactly merely a private train wreck. He’s been a train wreck in public, and at the office. This raises an interesting question for the people who have worked with him. What are your responsibilities when the boss is a mess? Should you cover up and enable? Should you confront? Should you keep your head down? Staff at City Hall may be facing a particularly public form of this question, but it’s a problem faced in many workplaces.

Junior employees typically have the most to lose, so let’s deal with them first. The first thing that needs to be said is that junior employees aren’t always obligated to speak up, especially when speaking up puts them in personal or professional peril. For all our talk about ‘speaking truth to power,’ there’s a limit to how much we can ask people to sacrifice. It can be OK to keep your head down. This is a question of ethics, but ethics isn’t about always doing the maximum; it’s about deciding the right course of action, based on a range of relevant considerations. And keeping your job is one of those.

The corollary to the permission to keep your head down, though, is an obligation to learn from the situation, to figure out how you might help to avoid such situations in the future, and to resolve never to put junior employees in such a bind when you yourself are at the top of the ladder.

Of course, if your boss’s antics are putting lives at risk, that’s an ethical consideration that should probably outweigh your own concern with staying employed. Valuing your own job above the public safety implies a level of egocentrism that is incompatible with our general social responsibilities.

But an employee’s level of responsibility for the boss varies with power and proximity. A senior advisor with a lot of influence has a responsibility to use it. When you’ve got the boss’s ear, you owe it to him or her to give good guidance, even what it’s advice he or she does not want to hear. But if the boss won’t listen, and if your position gives you the relevant authority, you should take action. Just what action to take will depend on what options are available to you, given your organization’s governance structure.

Most crucial of all is to remember that you owe your primary allegiance not to the boss, but to the organization. With very few exceptions, an employee’s duty is to the mission of the organization as a whole. In normal circumstances, it’s up to the boss to coordinate and motivate employees in pursuit of that mission. But when the boss strays far off mission, or wanders into utter ineffectualness, then there’s justification for deviating from the usual chain of command. Good leaders — ones who are aware of their own foibles and who are focused on the good of the organization — will make it clear to their employees in advance that that’s what they would want them to do, should the need ever arise.

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.

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