Decisions, decisions: the ultimate ethical dilemma for tech giants
A view from Rob Norman

Decisions, decisions: the ultimate ethical dilemma for tech giants

The tech giants are discovering they aren't immune from ethical dilemmas and their response will determine whether their dominance will continue or decline, Rob Norman says.

One of the most quoted, misquoted and incorrectly attributed anecdotes about bargaining goes like this:

A man asks a woman if she will sleep with him for one million dollars. She answers yes.

He follows up and asks her if she will sleep with him for one hundred thousand dollars. She demurs and asks what kind of woman the man thinks she is.

He retorts that the kind of woman she is has already been established, and that they are now merely haggling about price.

Regardless of who said it first – George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Groucho Marx, Mark Twain, or Lord Beaverbrook – the relevance of the anecdote dating back to at least 1937 persists.

The announcements this week that Google was contemplating a return to China with a search engine meeting the requirements of the Chinese government, and that Google, Apple and Facebook would remove Alex Jones’ Infowars content from their platforms, can be viewed for their similarities to the famous anecdote.

Many have suggested that the tech giants’ apparent immunity from corporate and social norms will only really be tested by economic threat or opportunity – in other words, an argument about the price.

Google has been attacked left and right for its alleged stance.

It is being positioned as pandering to the Chinese regime, prioritising corporate economics over freedom, and is likely to be asked the question: "If China gets to choose what’s ok, what about Venezuela, Egypt, Iran, Germany and pretty much any other state?"

Indirectly, the Infowars issue is related; it has been banned for one or more breaches of "terms of service", which raises the question are corporate terms of service a more appropriate line in the sand than national statute?

These questions seem fair, but are they really new?

Through the history of publishing, questions like these have been asked time and again. Almost always, corporate entities are compelled to make a choice: abide by local legislation or don’t do business in that country (favouring principle over profit).

In fact, the same circumstances arise across multiple industries. In some countries you can advertise to children, in some you cannot. In some (like the US) you can advertise tobacco; in the UK you cannot. The same is true of prescription pharmaceuticals. The examples are endless: vehicle emission standards, natural resources exploitation and even (dare I say it) the trading of media inventory.

Nation states make their own laws. Sometimes, like the EU, they set laws conferring freedoms and restrictions across national boundaries. Typically, global companies follow the same path:

  1. Do what the enterprise was intended to do, with good intent, and hope there are few consequences (where we all start);
  2. Accept sanctions or restrictions, usually economic, as a cost of doing business (where most get to);
  3. Adapt to the local rule book and draw whatever line in the sand successfully triangulates shareholder return, employee satisfaction, and the avoidance of public opprobrium (where most end up).

So, it turns out that the famous story about negotiating is not really a morality tale at all. It’s really one of complex economic equilibrium.

At its heart, it is a measure of the price of capitalism as value is negotiated between two parties – and then critiqued by shareholders, employees, customers and regulators.

This seems like an inevitable progression. It also seems like something of a brake (however insufficient) on the behavior of corporate superpowers.

Facebook has already experienced the contortion of doing business in the crosshairs of public perception and regulatory scrutiny.

Google has twice been fined significant sums for its business practices in the EU, and separately has been criticised for its content policies.

How these companies, and perhaps Apple and Amazon, sensitise themselves to the changing appetites of regulators and the public will determine if their hegemonic positions persist into the next decade and beyond.

Rob Norman is an adviser to Group M and its former chief digital officer