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 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 better advance their interests.
With great market power comes great responsibility.
Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.