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Future Implications: Ethics in technology

Google made the list of the World's Most Ethical Companies, but Microsoft, Apple and Sony did not. In response, Don asks a simple question: why?

As I sat here today, trying to decide what the topic should be for this week's Future Implications piece, I thought of the ever-popular topics of computing, smart phones and even HDTVs. But alas, I came across this list from Ethisphere that lists the World's Most Ethical Companies for 2007.

Upon opening the link and examining the list, I was aghast at what I found: most major tech companies were nowhere to be found. Is this an endemic issue in the technology business? And more importantly, what can be done to fix it?

Now, as most of you are aware, I typically don't speak about ethics because, well, business has historically been a place where ethics has no footing--just ask Bernie Ebbers. But why is that so? Shouldn't business and especially the tech industry be rife with ethical people just waiting to do the right thing? Sadly, it looks like it isn't.

The following organizations made the list for the top tech companies: NEC, Sun Microsystems, Texas Instruments, Xerox, General Electric (I'll include it), Canon, Philips, Sharp, Google, Nokia, and Vodafone.

Now, this list may sound fine if taken at face value and just because companies are not featured, it doesn't mean they are not ethical, but where are the leaders in this business? Where are Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo and Sony? Why haven't those companies been rated higher?

Unfortunately, I just don't have the answer to why the larger corporations (except for Google) are not the most ethical in this business. And, if given the chance, none of the companies would admit to such an indictment. But the facts speak for themselves: Sony, Microsoft and Apple (among others), are not doing enough to be ethical.

Now, it's not my intention to bash these companies for not being placed higher on the most ethical list. And I have no basis for judging a company's ethics because we all hold different moral values that help us decide what is more important to us--the environment or an overall social responsibility stance. But what I can say is this: as the world's largest and most successful technology companies, I hope the aforementioned firms make it on the list in the future. What does it say about the management and even the customers of these companies (myself included) if we continue to support organizations that are unethical?

That said, does it mean any of us will stop buying from these companies? No way. And I'm not suggesting that by buying their products, we are supporting unethical behavior, but I can say that these companies have a responsibility to customers, shareholders and other stakeholders to uphold the highest moral standards because--as we all know--if the leader takes an ethical stance, the followers will as well. And if all companies in this business become more ethical, we as consumers can expect a much better future.

If you're interested in knowing the criteria for determining which company is most ethical, here it is in its order of examination:
1. Litigation and controversy/conflict analysis
2. Ethical tone analysis
3. Innovation and industry leadership analysis
4. Corporate citizenship analysis
5. Pan-industry effort participation analysis
6. Governance and transparency analysis
7. Public and trade partner perception analysis
8. Ethics/compliance programs and systems analysis

Every Thursday, Don picks a current events topic and discusses how it will affect us in the future. Check out more from Don's Future Implications series.