Corporate Citizenship, Apple, and WikiLeaks

What kinds of political obligations do corporations have? In particular, do they have obligations, like governments do, not to interfere with things like people’s ability to express themselves?

See this short blog entry by Leander Kahney, at Cult of Mac: Apple Pulled Wikileaks App Because It “Violated Dev Guidelines”

Apple has joined the shameful list of companies that have denied support for Wikileaks.

Apple confirmed that it removed a Wikileaks App from the online App Store, as reported earlier, and did so because it “violated our developer guidelines.”

“Apps must comply with all local laws and may not put an individual or group in harm’s way,” Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller told the New York Times.

However, exactly how or why the app doesn’t comply with the law — or puts individuals or groups in harm’s way, Muler didn’t explain. She also didn’t discuss the First Amendment or the freedom of the press….

(I’ve already blogged on the more general question of whether companies are justified in ceasing to do business with WikiLeaks. See: Should Companies Judge the Ethics of Those With Whom they Do Business?)

But what’s particularly interesting in the bit quoted above is that Kahney mentions the First Amendment, implying that Apple ought to support WikiLeaks because it has a First-Amendment obligation to do so.

On the face of it, from a legal point of view, that’s surely false. The First Amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances

Now, on the face of it, that’s a restriction on what the US Congress may do; it implies nothing at all about what private organizations (including corporations like Apple) may or may not do. (If there are experts on US Constitutional Law out there, please feel free to correct me!) But it may well be that the precepts enunciated in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights (or in other nations’ constitutional documents) should be thought of as having not just legal force, but also moral force, and that that moral force should be thought of as extending to all kinds of institutions, not just government. If that’s the case, then you could argue that, even though corporations are not legally bound by such principles, they ought ethically to be guided by them.

The whole issue of whether corporations have specifically political obligations to citizens (and not just more general ethical obligations to consumers) is a difficult one. Are we gaining something, or losing something, by thinking of corporations that way? Does thinking about corporations as playing a quasi-governmental role illuminate their moral obligations, or obscure them? In this regard, if you’re academically inclined it’s worth taking a look at this masterful article by my friend Pierre-Yves Néron: “Business and the Polis: What Does it Mean to See Corporations as Political Actors?”

8 comments so far

  1. Jeff Moriarty on

    Chris — great post and thanks especially for the link to Neron’s paper at the end. I was hoping someone would condense and explain this voluminous literature to me!

  2. […] – Professor MacDonald has added another post on this subject. This one is called Corporate Citizenship, Apple and Wikileaks. This one was posted on his web site on December 22, […]

  3. Dan Wheeler on

    Julian Friedland had an interesting post yesterday using Apple as an example to discuss the ethics of outsourcing.

  4. Julian Friedland on

    Interesting issue Chris.

    I agree fully with your criticism of conflating the first amendment with corporate obligations. This happens all the time especially with indignant political activists; recently on the Fox News Juan Williams imbroglio. Fox CEO Roger Ailes, was claiming (together with Palin and others on the rabid right) that Williams’ dismissal from NPR was an infringement of his first amendment rights. That’s simply absurd. NPR is not the government.

    But this touches on the deeper issue you point out, namely, whether corporations can and should be seen as extensions of the government when they hold so much power as they do in this world, particularly in the U.S. today.

    I think we can still consider what corporations such as Apple are doing to Wikileaks as unethical. The difference is that it is not necessarily unjust for it is well within their rights to do this. But it also seems to not be taking the moral high road. And today, that can be a liability to highly-visible corporations vulnerable to mass boycott.

  5. Chris MacDonald on


    Thanks for that. I think there are actually 2 ways (in principle) to think of corporations having political obligations. One (the option you point out) is if corporations are an extension of government. The second is if they are in some sense quasi-governmental in their own right, by virtue of their power, influence, etc.


  6. Julian Friedland on

    Néron’s article is certainly an interesting survey of the literature on this topic. Thanks for the reference. But I found it difficult to understand exactly how he would define a corporate political act. Indeed, he never even provides an example.

    Yet he concludes by saying “some things are more political than others” and that shopping, for example is not overly political. So it’s unclear why we even need a theory here. He really should have provided characteristic examples, perhaps the divesting from wiki or engaging in wiretapping under gov’t pressure? And can we say that CSR is mainly ethical and not really political? Obviously, corporate political lobbying is political. And we might have different political theories of which stakeholders do and should hold more or less power.

    But I don’t see why shopping responsibly by, say, buying locally-grown organic produce with little or no packaging is anything more than an ethical act. It has little or nothing to do with the politics, defined at least in our case as engaging in representative democracy. Similarly, Wal-Mart lowering packaging in it’s products is an ethical act that may also end up being more lucrative. Where is politics as defined above in such cases or in anything we might consider CSR?

    Néron never tells us.

  7. Julian Friedland on

    Corporations pay income taxes for example. And as I have argued here
    they may have contractual obligations to citizens of the countries in which they might justifiably pay such taxes.

    Here we have an arguable case of corporate citizenship obligation. And turning one’s back on such obligations could be considered similar to turning one’s back on individual citizenship obligations such as, say, defending one’s country from terrorist attack or supporting the local volunteer fire dept. In such cases, if too many individuals flout their moral responsibility, the state may intervene to force them to stand up and do the right thing. The same is true of a corporation, which might turn its back on its home country by offshoring any job that can be done more cheaply oversees, even if those jobs are in great demand at home.

    Take Canada for example, which has required all universities to seek to fill faculty posts with Canadians first. Of course, these institutions are mainly publicly supported as far as I know. But the state could very well go further if it chose to. It could also force individual citizens to vote as is required in Belgium.

    I should say these are all arguably as political as they are moral activities. It would have been good to have some such discussion from Néron about how each of the four conceptions of politics he presents would treat specific cases, where (and why) such cases should be considered political and not merely ethical.

  8. Matt Martell on

    There certainly will be more leaks, and some will certainly be embarrassing. There’s no doubt that firms will have to deal with myriad data protection problems in the coming decade. But, in a lot of cases, the chinks in the armor can be identified and fixed if managers promote a ‘corporate culture’ in which all employees feel it is part of their job to identify problems and report them – without any fear of reprisal for doing so.

    The right corporate culture ingrains the right habits in all employees (see: From working with hundreds of companies, we’ve seen a few truths present in every case: employee discomfort in speaking up is a leading indicator of compliance failures; the vast majority – 85% – of employees don’t believe it is their job to follow quality management systems; and most employees do not share bad news because they fear it will harm their careers.

    Matt Martell
    CEB Views

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