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Corporate ethics is grounded on accountability to the public. - Jef"I am the pusher robot"Spaleta
ramblings of the self-elected Fedora party whip
Corporate ethics is grounded on accountability to the public.
This post is about Canonical and the Banshee situation that has unfolded over the last week or so. Specifically I am going to address the point that has been raised concerning whether or not Canonical has an ethical obligation that goes beyond what is allowed by the licensing associated with Banshee as a FOSS codebase.

As a corporation Canonical cannot expect their actions to just meet the minimal standard of legality. As a corporation Canonical must adhere to an ethical standard set by their consumers, their business partners and the community the rely on. Throughout history corporations have been successfully pressured by the public to change their behaviour when the public have found such behaviour to be undesirable and or damaging for the social good. There are multiple examples over the last 20 years of boycotts and protests where the public have coerced a behaviour change from corporate entities above and beyond what is strictly legally required. Canonical must keep this in mind when choosing to craft each and every business decisions it makes. Corporate accountability ultimately rests in the court of public opinion. Sometime that public opinion gets enshrined as a new legal requirement when corporate abuses are extreme. But many other times, accountability and corrective action comes simply from people speaking out (respectfully) when they see a corporation doing something damaging.

This is no different than the historic example of people protesting Nike for using foreign “sweatshops” to produce their products. That protest spanned a decade, with Nike continuously being defensive about their policy and saying it was perfectly legal. But eventually Nike smartened up and changed their corporate culture and addressed the “unethical” business activity.

“Nike was heavily criticized for selling goods produced in sweatshops throughout the 1990s. They originally responded by lashing out and denying all claims brought against them. However, Nike’s director of compliance, Tom McKean, spoke of Nike’s irresponsibility in 2001. McKean stated in an interview that, “Our initial attitude was, ‘Hey, we don’t own the factories. We don’t control what goes on there.’ Quite frankly, that was a sort of irresponsible way to approach this. We had people there every day looking at quality. Clearly, we had leverage and responsibility with certain parts of the business, so why not others?”[12] Recently Nike has developed an intense program to deal with these claims. Nike has employed a staff of 97 people to randomly inspect several hundred of their factories each year. Nike also gave the Fair Labor Association, an association founded to monitor labor conditions, the privilege to randomly inspect any factory they wish.”

While the Nike analogy is not perfect(no analogy is) its stresses the point I want to make. Perfectly legal business decisions can be irresponsible and can be damaging to both your corporate interests and to society at large. Whether a business decision is legal or not is the absolutely lowest bar by which a business decision can be evaluated, it is never enough to define a corporate culture and a corporate brand that people respect, it will never be enough.

Where Nike built its image with consumers on quality and eventually learned to internally that focus on quality inside its own business practises, Canonical needs to learn to internalize the respectful ethical engagement with community that it projects in the minds of its consumers. Canonical built its image..builds its products..based on a standard of ethical community engagement it set for itself. It is unreasonable for Canonical expect that it won’t have the Banshee interaction held to the same standard of community engagement that is used elsewhere inside their corporate culture.

If Canonical from day one had said we are a cut-throat business entity instead of constructing the image of itself as a community focused business…things would be different. A lot different. The Ubuntu project would not exist as it does today… Canonical would be just another vendor failing to make a buck. But because Canonical very meticulously constructed an image of itself as a constructive, highly respectful, highly engaged management of the Ubuntu project then its current actions must be held accountable to _that_ standard. Canonical cannot have it both ways. They cannot be an unscrupulous business entity and also be in partnership with the community as an ethical partner.

The banshee situation..both the initial offer and the new situation show a _deep_ corporate culture problem inside Canonical which is at odds with projected image. This culture clash is only going to get worse unless Ubuntu as a community finds a way to make Canonical accountable for bad decisions instead of just reacting defensively. At the moment I don’t have any suggestions on how to make that happen. It will involve some public discussion, which Canonical tends to shun with regard to any of its business decisions.

I say all this not because I want to rub Canonical's nose into its mistakes. Just like the people who protested Nike to change its business practises, I write this because I want things to be better than they are..better than what is strictly required by law. As an ecosystem of overlapping not-for-profit and for-profit entities we absolutely must work on setting a reasonable ethical standard that we can bake into the corporate cultures in vendors that come in the future.

No one is perfect. As individuals we will make mistakes. And a corporation if it is anything, is a sum of those of all the individual mistakes its employees make. This is not going to change. But a corporate culture on how to _learn_ from those mistakes as they are made can change. All corporations can learn how to be accountable for the mistakes that are found to be damaging to society.. if and only if they listen instead of just trying to rationalize a decision once it is made.

3 comments or Leave a comment
papertowlbtrfly From: papertowlbtrfly Date: March 3rd, 2011 08:59 pm (UTC) (Link)

if you climb a mountain and you turn around

Personally, I don't think Canonical ever set out to be a typical corporation embracing the dark side of capitalism. Rather, I think the original goal had been to establish a 'balance' much like crown corporations do. Recently though, there seems to be a panic to become profitable and that's been reflected in very poor choices not only impacting Canonical, but FOSS overall. If you ask me, this panic to become profitable looks an awful lot like a rushed exit strategy. Mr.Shuttleworth has to give some very considered thought as to what he wants his legacy to be. It's been my observation that it's often the most critical who are the most helpful :)
jspaleta From: jspaleta Date: March 7th, 2011 05:37 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: if you climb a mountain and you turn around

Crown corps are structured to be accountable to the people via the government through some measure of budgetary oversight and the ability to appoint members to the corps executive board. I believe that crown corps also have a financial disclosure requirement to the government as part of that accountability.

None of these accountability checks and balances exist in the way Shuttleworth chose to structure Canonical.

Shuttleworth could have chosen to have the structure of the Canonical/Ubuntu relationship mimic the Mozilla structuring, which uses a for-profit subsidiary to the non-profit Mozilla Foundation. This sort of structuring does provide some checks and balances as the Foundation's interests as the Foundation provide oversight in a very real and binding way to the subsidiary for-profit.


papertowlbtrfly From: papertowlbtrfly Date: March 9th, 2011 02:18 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: if you climb a mountain and you turn around

Do you think it's too late for that...and would it be ideal? It would seem that those accountability checks would essentially eliminate the role of "Benevolent Dictator". While this may seem like a good thing on the surface, I look at Linux Mint and past ,uh, 'conversations' I've had with Ubuntu enthusiasts and wonder if the sagacity needed to practice restraint in installing restricted items in Ubuntu could have come from a board purely focused on proving GNU/Linux profitable on as many desktops as possible? If the board were focused towards the other end of the spectrum, well then, wouldn't you have Debian? Again, I interpret amongst the founding principles of Ubuntu to be balance. Sadly, things now appear to be askew :(

Also, I'm posting here mostly out of curiosity and because you seem to be using your livejournal as a standard blog. If this is your private livejournal and random comments are not welcome, then please excuse my intrusion :)
3 comments or Leave a comment