Over the last few decades, technological advances have accelerated. Not only has the Internet completely changed social interactions, but it has similarly created a cultural shift. But not everyone has benefited from these advances, and in fact, many have been negatively affected. Now, the Metaverse may be just around the corner, so the subject of self-regulated businesses deserves some attention. Should self-regulation in business ethics be inherent or enforced? And if it’s the latter, who must serve as the watchdog to ensure it takes place?
In this modern technological era, there are well-known tech giants that control the landscape. Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon are just a few of the most recognizable names. But based on recent events, it’s evident that self-regulation in business ethics is lacking. Privacy concerns are abundant, and gaps in wealth and opportunity are widening. This raises the question whether self-regulated businesses are even feasible when incentives are skewed. In an effort to better grasp these issues, the following explores Apple’s recent decision to self-regulate some key issues. And it also examines whether this is the way we need to move in the future.
“People have to say, this is not about tech, this is about our democracy. This is about our economy. And if we get to that point, then we will start to see the reform. But, what we’re missing, is that kind of urgency and mobilization.” – Ro Khanna, U.S. Congressman, California
Key Issues Surrounding Self-Regulation
In terms of technologies, several important issues have surfaced over the years as we have all become increasingly “connected.” One of the most important ones is that of privacy as it pertains to individual’s information and preferences. Facebook makes billions on advertising by feeding consumers ads based on browsing histories. In fact, Apple cost Facebook over $10 billion by simply requiring customers to opt-in so that this to occur. Some see this as Apple being a self-regulated business while others see them as extending their values into the industry. And still others see this as self-regulation in business ethics that’s effectively been absent in recent decades.
While privacy and data-sharing are hot topics, so is false information, propaganda, and hate speech. In the aftermath of January 6th, 2021, it became evident how powerful and dangerous these issues can be. Social media served as both the ignition and fuel for this to spread, and the end-result was disastrous. Therefore, questions about self-regulation in business ethics arise when companies fail to self-police these aspects. Truly self-regulated businesses would take a stand based on company values, ethics, and consumer protections. But for the most part, this has not been something seen very often.
“Democracy counts in the digital world as well as the physical one. It must be that what we agree is illegal actually is illegal and is treated as such. And what is legal is legal and treated as such. And that, I think, is a permanent thing — that democracy is coming back to be able to govern our society when it’s digital.” – Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice President, European Commission
Obstacles to Overcome in Technology Oversight
Appreciating the need for greater technology oversight, it seems odd that greater government and citizen involvement doesn’t exist. In terms of government regulations, agreements have been difficult to achieve. There has certainly been some lag between technology use and lawmaker understandings of the situation. This has led to an underappreciation of the potential dangers associated with social media and fake news. Likewise, technology firms have leveraged billions to promote their own interests. In the process, government oversight has given way to self-regulated businesses. And self-regulation in business ethics has been non-existent. The end result has been insufficient oversight and abuse.
However, consumers are also to blame in part. Unlike other industries that are regulated, technology services are generally enjoyed. Therefore, government regulations pose a threat to these services that might make them less robust and attractive. As a result, citizens have not demonstrated a high level of interest in greater government oversight. Though they appreciate the risks to a degree, citizen pressure on politicians to act has been limited. At the same time, a high degree of cynicism exists among the public when it comes to government productivity. Few believe government policies could actually enforce effective oversight of technologies. The end result therefore accepts self-regulated businesses as the only solution.
“One of the things is we need a nuanced approach to antitrust. I think that that approach means that companies shouldn’t be able to discriminate against vendors. But, if they can show that it is consistent with their values or in the consumer welfare, that may be a balance that allows them to do that.” – Ro Khanna
A Possible Path Forward
As is the case most of the time, the best path forward requires engagement of all stakeholders. Without question, self-regulation in business ethics is a must for technology companies. Businesses must define their values, and they must make choices that align with those perspectives. At the same time, citizens must hold companies accountable and support self-regulated businesses while avoiding others. But in order to embrace these efforts, we all must appreciate the urgency and importance of technology oversight. We now live in a digital world, and it requires regulations just like the physical one.
This past year, Apple took a major step in the right direction. But Tim Cook and Apple cannot be the gatekeeper for the entire technology industry. In fact, it cannot be its own gatekeeper when incentives exist that could lead them down the wrong path. Government action is needed, and a nuanced approach to technology oversight will be required. Part of these solutions will involve policies that encourage greater self-regulation in business ethics. Others will put external safeguards in place. Thus, self-regulated businesses will be able to thrive in such environments leading to a better world for us all. Only through broad involvement and input will these key issues related to technology be resolved.