Business Ethics and the Microsoft Dilemma?
It is easier for an organisation to build upon its founding values than for a company to change. Being a value driven individual or organisation has many benefits, but we are faced with difficult business decisions on a daily basis. Some days the decisions to be faced have larger ramifications than others. Take this first weekend in August, for example, when we at Samu (and millions of others) were confronted with the question to install Microsoft Windows 10 or not.
What do you do with a problem like Microsoft Windows 10? Similar questions can be asked for Google, Apple or the plethora of services a communications service is compelled to use such as Linkedin and Facebook. Yes, there are Linux based alternatives, which we use in parallel. But as yet we cannot rely solely upon that operating system, besides, we are still faced with the need to provide services on platforms and applications that have ethically questionable practices.
The business financial costs
The troubles with Microsoft Windows 10 are beginning to be documented, and should be of serious concern to any individual or organisation. First, there were the technical challenges. We ‘upgraded’ one Windows 7 machine and one Windows 8.1 installation. The Windows 7 upgrade has worked, sort of, but continues to cause severe CPU problems due to a particular ‘security’ background process. The Windows 8.1 upgrade has so far failed.
It’s not like we at Samu are technically incapable, so I don’t envy the tasks faced by the millions of less technically minded general users of Microsoft’s customers. I personally have spent 8 hours, so far, attempting to resolve the ‘Runtime Broker’ problems (that have existed since Windows 8) the upgrade has caused. I’d love to bill Microsoft for this lost time. So the ‘free’ upgrade is not without financial penalties.
There have been time-costs too in seeking to mitigate against the opt out, rather than opt in approach Microsoft have chosen to implement. In a previous blog I referred to Dan Arierly’s Fora TV’s talk on the different effects that ‘opt in’ has versus ‘opt out’ choices. In the talk Arierly examines a study by Johnson and Goldstein, how different populations (based on countries) react when presented with questions about organ donations. The results are startling.
Microsoft will know that the vast majority of its customers will not read either the 17,000-word privacy statement or the 12,000-word services agreement nor go through the 13 different spaces required to opt out, allowing it’s third party services to literally listen to their users speech collect voice inputs, the data from diary events, names of people in your appointments, apps, emails, text messages, phone calls, contacts and browsing history, as well as device location and usage behaviour around music, alarm settings and internet purchases. On top of this Microsoft can reveal your data when it wants all with a user’s non opted out ‘consent’.
Eventually legislators may take action through regulation. There is an important piece of legislation being discussed in the EU at present on data protection reform, but as with nearly all legislation it is a lagging indicator, reacting to what has happened, and open to the influences of corporate lobbying. In the time gap between any legislation that may be restrictive on Microsoft and now, the corporation will have been able to have collected and acted upon unimaginable amounts of data from its users.
It would appear that the primary purpose of Microsoft to undertake this approach was to ensure that they can garner a greater share of advertising revenue, in its competition with Apple and particularly Google. The field upon which this battle for advertising revenue is hardly renown for its history of applied good standards.
In its privacy statement, Microsoft says:
‘We use the data we collect to help select the ads Microsoft delivers—whether on our own services or on services offered by third parties. The ads we select may be based on your current location, search query, or the content you are viewing. Other ads are targeted based on your likely interests or other information that we learn about you over time using demographic data, search queries, interests and favorites, usage data, and location data.’
Microsoft will be aware of recent examples, such as at Gawker, that negative coverage of consumer ethical concerns rarely bothers advertisers, or makes a sufficient dent in financial returns. The HSBC case reveals that a corporate’s own advertising expenditure too can help mitigate threats to reputational damage. Yet such statements will do little to allay additional concerns.
The long chain
It would be remiss not to briefly consider some more ethical concerns for business and consumers that Windows 10 privacy policies raise. The most obvious ones are questions over the potential for industrial spying. During a German TV appearance Edward Snowden stated that the NSA is involved in industrial espionage:
“If there’s information at Siemens that’s beneficial to U.S. national interests—even if it doesn’t have anything to do with national security—then they’ll take that information nevertheless,”
This raises two immediate questions, 1) What is the current / ongoing relationship between the Microsoft Corporation and the US Intelligence Services 2) What effective safeguards exist from Microsoft undertaking similar practices for its own commercial benefits?
Ethics, mitigations, guidelines
Ethics is the important framework for management. Trust has often been pointed out to be the most valuable business commodity, and for good reason. Without trust there is no reciprocal business, or business for mutual benefit, there is only domination with the consequent abuses such monopoly power entails. Perhaps this is the reason why corporates find buying ethical companies attractive.
Trust has to be gained through consistency of practice before it can be established. Consistency requires considerations being undertaken not only through an entities own practice, but throughout its supplier chain, its value chain. Nowhere is this more difficult than with the different ethical values within the supply chain of data management.
It can be easy for an ethical entity to fall for the logical moralistic fallacy; to argue from a position of how things ought to be two statements about how things are, or its inverse, the naturalistic fallacy, moving from descriptions of how things are to statements of how things ought to be. So I shall endeavor to do neither. I will merely provide pointers to two useful resources, an article on new ethical considerations for business by Dorian Benkoil, and an ethical business decisions framework by Harris, Parmar and Wicks.
For myself, I will be un-installing Windows 10. It’s not a reliable platform to run my business from. Neither am I confident that the measures I have taken to mitigate against the intrusive nature of Microsoft’s privacy policies are sufficient. I have to take the financial hit for my lost time on the chin. I shall also continue to refine the value chain of my suppliers, replacing the existing ones pragmatically, within a goal of being as ethically proactive as possible. I shall apply a more formal ethical framework and take on board new considerations, too and communicate when these changes have been sufficiently applied.
Meanwhile, enjoy the Featured image entitled ‘Things to recreate whilst waiting for Windows 10 to work properly’ and if this topic has generated further inquiry on your part then please visit our curated collection of articles, which feature business ethics.