“Know what you carry” was the threatening message that met me many years ago as I crossed the border between two South East Asian countries. The accompanying noose on the sign left no doubts to the consequences of not knowing what I was (inadvertently or not) transporting.
Knowing what you carry is becoming a major corporate responsibility issue for a wide range of industries. From internet services companies to container ships, companies face the mounting challenge of better controlling what happens inside their service offerings. Expectations differ from industry to industry, so it begs the question, “How far does business’ responsibility extend?”
Telecommunication and internet service providers have long battled a range of views of what responsibility they should have for content transported through their wires and portals—not a simple question when 24 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute.
The shipping industry—which transports a third of global trade on 240 million trips each year—also faces great challenges in controlling its immense cargo. Many of us still remember the horrific images of the Chinese workers who had suffocated in a container trying to get to the U.K. And, unfortunately, human trafficking is just the tip of the iceberg with other illicit transport including electronic waste, timber, and counterfeit products.
With the continual rise in transactions in both these industries, inevitably comes a rise in new regulations and expectations that companies deploy a range of measures to reduce the possibility that they are complicit in issues such as human rights violations.
Yet the response to these new expectations can be as varied as the expectations themselves. In the internet sector, some claim that companies should carry liability for supporting public policy goals and remove certain types of content. At the same time, free speech advocates worry about the “slippery slope” and make a compelling case that placing any liability on companies will only serve to chill freedom of expression, especially in closed societies.
On the flip side, the container shipping industry has focused mainly on ensuring legal compliance and has maintained the position that the ultimate responsibility for the content in the ”box” rests with the shippers and the customers. Yet, there too, change is afoot. A few of the major shipping lines are asking themselves if, in fact, they should have an opinion about the content of the cargo they move around the world. The world’s largest container shipping line, Maersk Line, recently made headlines across the world when it announced that it would stop transporting illegal unreported unregulated fish (IUU fish) and that it was reviewing its policy regarding acceptance of future seafood shipments.
While these two industries are taking different tacks, the questions are ultimately relevant to all industries: What criteria should you use to determine if an otherwise legal transaction is ethically unacceptable? How do you determine corporate complicity? Given the impracticality—and impossibility—of individually checking the millions of transport containers and video uploads, just how far does the responsibility of the company and industry extend? And when is it right to impose self-control—and when is it not?
What do you think?