Do technology vendors have any responsibility other than to make good products, offer good services and earn sizable profits? That question is being asked with increasing frequency these days, as vendors face ethical controversies over actions they take or don't take around the world -- and the controversies show no signs of abating. The biggest names in IT are involved, including Apple, Microsoft and Google. And whether you know it or not, you're involved as well.
One of those controversies recently came to light in a New York Times story that charged that Microsoft is helping the authoritarian Russian regime crack down on dissidents and opposition newspapers under the guise of combating software piracy. Russian police conduct raids, claiming to look for pirated Microsoft software, remove computers whether they contain illicit software or not, and then prosecute the computers' users.
The article painted a dark portrait of Microsoft's role in aiding the authorities, saying that Microsoft lawyers "have staunchly backed the police" and even aided in the prosecutions. Microsoft initially denied the charges. Then, to its credit, it said it was hiring an international law firm to investigate the charges. It also changed licensing rules to make it more difficult for the Russian police to conduct the raids.
Microsoft, though, still cooperates with Chinese authorities to censor the Web for those who use its Bing search engine. Apple cooperates as well; its iTunes service bans people in China from downloading certain apps that mention the Dalai Lama or Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer.
Google, of course, took a stand against censorship in China and refused to censor its search results. It has taken a financial hit for this, but it hasn't backed down.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world's most brutal war is being financed by sales of so-called conflict minerals such as tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold, which are used to manufacture consumer electronics, including laptops and cell phones. Some groups have called on electronics vendors not to buy those minerals. And some companies, such as Motorola and Intel, are trying to trace the origins of minerals they purchase, in an effort to ensure that they don't buy conflict minerals. But not all companies are following suit. (You can get more details from groups such as Raise Hope for Congo and Enough.)
What are companies' responsibilities when it comes to these kinds of moral issues? Some things transcend profit, and companies need to understand that. They might even find that good morals make for good business. Consumers are far more well informed about products and the companies that make them than ever before, and they're taking action based on that information. They're starting to take into account not just product specs, but also the behavior of the companies that make those products.
What to Do
This is where you come in. These issues aren't going away. Technology has become enmeshed in the culture, politics and economies of every country on the planet. And you're not an innocent bystander. You buy these companies' products or use their services, and so ultimately you support them. If you take companies' behavior around the world into account when making buying decisions -- and if you let them know that -- you'll help make sure that you and your employer don't inadvertently help fund the most brutal war on the planet or crack down on dissidents.
Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).