Reading08: Corporations are by the few, for the few

Reading08: Corporations are by the few, for the few

Corporate Personhood is when corporations are afforded some of the same rights and freedoms that people are granted (and, too infrequently, when they are given the same responsibilities). The most high-profile example is the ability of corporations to participate in the political process by lobbying and giving donations, a freedom given under Free Speech from the 1st amendment.

Most of the aspects of corporate personhood are freedoms, under the 1st, 4th, 5th (though they have no privilege against self-incrimination), 6th, and 8th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Criminal and civil legal actions can be taken against a corporation as a whole, as well.  The legal ramifications are pretty straightforward – certain actions by its members can be held against a corporation as a whole, and penalties (usually in the form of fines) can be levied against them.

The social and ethical ramifications are more complicated, and I think are where our current system is lacking. In short, I believe that a problem arises because we give corporations the ability to do things like participate in our political process and engage with communities, but the current view and structure of corporations holds that making as much money as possible (i.e. maximizing shareholder profit) is the goal. I will discuss this more after the specific case study.

I chose to read about the Sony BMG Rootkit. It seems like a no-brainer to me that installing a rootkit without users’ knowledge was unethical. In addition to installing software on user systems unbeknownst to them with no clear way of uninstalling it (bad enough already), the rootkit made the users vulnerable to all manner of attacks – any malicious program simply needed to put “$sys$” at the start of its name, and it would be hidden from the user.

I’m largely against DRM – if people want to pirate, they’re going to pirate; no company can make their content completely locked down. But, I don’t think that DRM in and of itself is unethical. I think it’s ineffective, unnecessary, and often puts too much power in the hands of the distributors rather than those who produce the media, but that’s beside the point. DRM in and of itself isn’t unethical. Coopting customers’ systems without their knowledge is. Doubly so because it was done irresponsibly, in a way that opens even careful customers up to opportunistic attacks.

I think that if corporations are afforded the same rights as individual persons, they should also be expected to, at the very least, have similar ethical and moral obligations and responsibilities. There will obviously be differences because it’s a corporation, but it can’t be like it is now – where profit matters above all else.

Just like people, corporations need to act as citizens. Currently, they largely try to make money above all else, to others’ detriment – they lobby for political change in self-interest, not policies that will help better society, they pollute the environment except where fines make it more economic not to, etc. Corporations have a lot of power, much more so than any one person. If we’re going to let them into our political process, we also need to rethink how we approach corporations. When they’re understood to be these large machines, controlled by the C-level executives, it’s no small wonder that the effects they have benefit the few rather than the many.

I don’t have a good answer for how to fix things, but the current system is not set up to approach the good of everyone. It would be a step forward if, as one reading suggested, lower-level workers had more say in the running and policy of their corporation. If employees contributed more than just labor to their company – their views and opinions in discourse, too – it would be at the very least a step in the right direction.