Writing 06: Corporate Conscience

One of the primary purposes of a government and its laws is to protect and promote the individual, but the reason why we protect the individual is because we believe in the ability of an individual to do good. Let’s consider free speech for example. Free speech, in every shape in form is fine until it becomes used for nefarious purposes, such as lying in the court of law or words that incite violence, because even if we may disagree with what a person is saying, we still believe that they have the right to express their opinions. This is important because what a person says reflects their moral values and believes, and the preservation of free speech is to allow individuals to speak out according to their moral guidelines. Thus, free speech is inherently tied to morality and ethics, as we protect free speech as a way of protecting and respecting different moral values and systems.

The protection of corporate free speech then is a bit of a strange idea. Corporations also receive many of the free speech protections that individuals do, but it seems strange to expect a corporation to have the same moral considerations an individual would. After all, a corporation ultimately is about making money, and if there is money to be made, the morality and ethics associated are a secondary consideration, as exemplified by IBM and Coca Cola working with Nazi Germany or Apple’s conflicting application of privacy values in China vs America. Why then should we be protecting corporations as individuals if we do not hold them to the same moral standards and have them face the same punishments as an individual would? Consider the Sony rootfile which essentially behaved like a virus that was extremely possible to remove and had dangerous access to any computer it was installed on. An individual would likely face jail time or fines in the hundreds of thousands for the damage they’ve done. To an individual, a fine of a couple hundred thousand is at least 2 or 3 years worth of salary, usually more once you consider taxes and the likes, while jail time also leads to loss salary, hardship while in jail, and a black mark on the individual’s record. Thus, the punishment for an individual hacker is extremely harsh, consisting of both jail time and large fines. When Sony essentially infected millions of computers with their rootfile, on the other hand, the only punishment they received was a promise to replace the cd’s, a small fine (small relative to the size of the company), and free “digital downloads” for each customer, something that essentially costed them nothing while also promoting one of their other products. Essentially, Sony got fined close to nothing, while also using the “opportunity” to advertise. How does that make sense? Why should the individual face harsh punishments from law when Sony, who has similar protections under the law, can get away with a small slap on the wrist? If we are to give Sony a similar punishment, if we are to treat corporations like individuals, we should fine them at least a year’s revenue, which would replicate the financial blow an individual would face, while also having those responsible for the decision face jail time.

It is up to the government to begin taking these steps towards equitable treatment, in particular the FTC who’s job it is to protect individual consumers from the larger, more powerful, corporations. If the government is going to give companies personhood, then they should also be responsible for enforcing the punishments a corporate person should receive. Until that happens, companies can get away with gray practices, and are less likely to credit moral and ethical issues in their business, which leads to damaging practices that ultimately will hurt the consumer.