Corporate Social Responsibility for the Tech Firms: A New Ethics for the Digital Age

The Evolution of CSR from the Industrial to the Digital Revolution

We are now living in what experts have called as the Digital Age or the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

While the previous rounds of the Industrial Revolution have been characterized by first rampant profit seeking by the Big Oil, Big Coal, and Manufacturing firms, the winds of change were not left behind as more and more activists and governments insisted that the Industrial Giants of those eras were held accountable for the pollution and the damage that they were doing to the environment and the ecology.

Thus, what is known as CSR or Corporate Social Responsibility emerged as a Paradigm changing event wherein successive waves of the revolutions in technology and engineering were accompanied by a sense of social and environmental responsibility as well.

Considering the fact that the present times are as disruptive as the previous eras of change, we now need a new model of CSR for the Digital Age wherein Big Tech Firms need to observe and follow a Code of Conduct or a Code of Ethics that is pertinent and relevant for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Indeed, as the subsequent discussion shows, Big Tech firms are now as monopolistic and as rapacious as the earlier incarnations such as Big Coal and Big Oil.

Need for Big Tech firms to Comply with Social and Ethical Norms

Of course, one might legitimately ask why should Big Tech firms that do not cause extensive pollution or damage the ecology or displace entire communities be held to account in the same manner as Manufacturing and Mining firms. Moreover, why Big Tech should with its egalitarian and equitable working styles and the very obvious Liberal leanings of its founders and employees is treated as villains ought to destroy the world for profit.

The answer to these questions lies in the fact that while Big Tech firms might seem to be liberal and open and transparent, the very unique nature of their business and their business models as well as the very real aspect of the Digital Age spawning its own set of challenges means that there should be a CSR code for the present age.

For instance, Facebook is now accused of being used by hostile foreign powers to influence the elections and the other political and democratic processes in the West.

In addition, there are concerns over the way Facebook uses the Data collected from its users as can be seen in the way the Cambridge Analytica Scandal laid bare some of the invisible ways in which it manipulates public opinion.

The Battles over User Data, Which is the New Oil

Apart from this, Google has been accused of its blatant algorithmic bias wherein it favors a few marketers and firms over others as far as Page Ranks and Display Results from Internet Searches are concerned.

These and numerous others examples of “things seeming to be more than what they are visible” have a common or concurrent theme or thread and it is that they all involve User Data and Personal Information collected from the users who sign up to such sites.

Thus, Data is the New Oil as India’s Richest Businessperson, Mukesh Ambani, says and hence, with such importance being accorded to Data Collection, Data Analytics, and Algorithmic Feeds using Data, no wonder that many activists and for that matter, governments as well are taking a hard look at how Big Tech Firms collect and use personal data.

This can be seen in the way the EU or the European Union passed the GDPR or the General Data Protection Rules recently that gives it the power to seek information regarding uses and abuses of user data as well as penalize the Tech firms when deviations and abuses are discovered.

CSR for the Digital Age

In short, what this means is that the battles over CSR for the Digital Age would not be fought over land and air (though they too figure prominently) but over Data, Privacy, and Information Security issues.

What is then needed are stronger laws to protect the personal data from being misused, ensuring that users and their confidential information is secured and their privacy guaranteed and most importantly, guaranteeing them that they would not be subject to electronic bombardment of ads, calls, messages, and outright and blatant marketing efforts arising from their Algorithmic created User Profiles from the data given by them.

As can be seen from the discussion so far, these things can prove to be detrimental to individual and collective wellbeing as much as the earlier era firms and their operations were concerned.

So, Big Tech firms must either adopt a Voluntary Code of Conduct in treating user data or be forced to comply in the manner in which the EU is doing.

Responsibility to Inform Users

Having said that, one might very well argue that such data is often collected with the explicit approval of the users and hence, there is nothing clandestine about it. Indeed, the consensual aspect is a problematic area for regulators who cannot prove that users were not informed before data collection.

However, as the saying goes, There is a Difference between the Letter of the Law and the Spirit of the Law and hence, this is where regulators have their task cut out by nudging Tech firms to be less of the former and more of the latter when they go about their business.

To conclude, each age or era brings with it its own sets of challenges and there are enough indications that the present Digital Age needs a New Code of Conduct and Ethics for the corporates.

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Corporate Social Responsibility