Opinion

The internet’s giants have changed the meaning of corporate social responsibility

The internet is a place where international laws are flimsy, and justice lives or dies by Facebook and Twitter's terms of service. In this new world, corporate social responsibility has taken on an entirely different meaning, writes Phil Reilly, SEO lead at Atomic 212.

The internet is a wonderful tool, one that has changed the world in uncountable ways over the past two decades or so. But the thing about tools is that, in the wrong hands, they can be used as weapons.

While there have always been people who use the worldwide web for nefarious purposes, it seems as though in the year or so since Donald Trump was voted President of the United States, the internet has been rife with racism, hate speech and sexism.

Chuck in the fake news phenomenon, and it seems the internet has developed a reputation for being decidedly destructive rather than constructive of late.

The reality is that the internet is a very appealing environment to voice controversial and even hateful opinions and concerns. You can hide behind a blank screen, where your views can never affect your life.

Obviously, things get really scary when it spills over into the real world, as we’ve seen happen far too many times of late, most recently with the horrible events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia.

So do online platforms have a social right to police this kind of behaviour? Or do they have a responsibility?

The things about the internet is that since it’s everywhere, it’s also nowhere, which makes applying one nation’s laws to it all but impossible.

And with the ever-present threat of piracy, the internet is a bit like the high seas – a place where no one really has overall domain, and thus rights and responsibilities are easily ignored or shirked.

Thus, rather than being subject to the laws of the land in which we are residing, we tend to be at the mercy of the terms of use for whatever social media service, search engine, or ISP we are using.

As assistant professor Emily Laidlaw, of the University of Calgary put it: “When Facebook decides to delete a group it deems offensive, Twitter suspends a user’s account for the content of his or her tweets, or Amazon decides to no longer host a site such as Wikileaks, the determination tends to be made outside the legal system of human rights.

“The result is a system of private governance running alongside the law without any of the human rights safeguards one normally expects of state-run systems, such as principles of accountability, predictability, accessibility, transparency and proportionality.”

Basically, the likes of Facebook, Google or even Airbnb can decide what does and doesn’t make it onto the services they provide. And that is perhaps a tad daunting.

However, in the days following the attack in Charlottesville, these three companies nailed their colours to their respective masts regarding white supremacy.

Google, taking a leaf from internet domain registrar Go Daddy, blocked neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer “for violating our terms of service” – the hate site having criticized Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman killed at Charlottesville.

Facebook weren’t far behind, removing all links to the Daily Stormer, banning the ‘Unite the Right’ event page, and promising to take down any videos which “glorify the horrendous act committed in Charlottesville”.

As for Airbnb, they flat-out banned anyone who had gone to Charlottesville to attend the rally.

“We require those who are members of the Airbnb community to accept people regardless of their race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or age,” Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said in a statement.

“When we see people pursuing behavior on the platform that would be antithetical to the Airbnb Community Commitment, we take appropriate action. In this case, last week, we removed these people from Airbnb.”

Now, there’s probably a case to be made that these companies have acted illegally – that just as you can’t refuse service to someone on the grounds of race or religion, neither can you decide you’re going to turn someone away because you don’t like their opinions.

However, as we’ve already covered, that’s going to be near impossible to bring before court, if for no other reason than, well, what jurisdiction does it fall under?

Perhaps more importantly, even if these companies were found to have acted improperly and copped a fine for their actions, you’d think they’ll probably end up ahead financially.

By making a stand, these companies may have alienated millions, but they’ve likely gained the respect of many tens of millions more.

While they’re hardly going to be seen in the same sphere as the likes of Doctors Without Borders or Amnesty International, at least Facebook, Google and Airbnb have made a public show that they stand for something.

And while the internet may be relatively lawless, when some of its biggest players say what they will and won’t allow, it sets precedent – both for other internet companies to play by, and so their customers and users know to what kind of company they’re giving their dollars and data.

Using a term like ‘battle lines’ feels pouring petrol on the flames of what is already a serious inferno, so maybe we just say that it’s just good to see companies drawing a line in the sand on what they will and won’t allow on their platforms.

While I’m sure we won’t always agree with everything these multibillion dollar companies do, it’s nice to see them, at least on this occasion, use their leverage as a weapon against tools.

Phil Reilly is SEO lead at Atomic 212.

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