First there was Occupy Wall Street, but now the noisiest protest seems to be coming from those who wish to occupy the Internet. The irony of it all is that this time, it’s the powerful corporations who are staging the sit-in (or ‘blackout’ or ‘shutdown’, as the case may be), ostensibly on behalf of grassroots consumers. The power brokers of cyberspace, led by Google and Wikipedia, have mounted a substantial protest against the anti-piracy bills being debated in Congress. The bills known as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Prevent Internet Piracy Act) have been attacked as threats to our freedom of speech and free market economics.
“Imagine a world without free knowledge…” begins Wikipedia’s protest page, “Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet” [BBC News, NY Times, Jan. 19, 2012]. This must be some powerful bad medicine, if it threatens to kill the patient. At least, that seems to be the position taken by Wikipedia’s publicists.
Whether or not these pieces of legislation have been well-crafted is certainly open to debate. I’m not concerned here with the legalities, but rather with the moral stance of the corporate protesters. The invective being thrown at these bills calls into question the integrity of the internet companies’ response. What moral weight do their tweets and texts bear? Consider the source: these proclamations and accusations are voiced by the companies who make their living by building and driving traffic in cyberspace.
The protesters are careful, of course, to avoid any appearance that they are in favor of piracy. They don’t question the motivations or intentions of the legislation aimed at reining in the pirates out there far from our shores (China, Russia and the Middle East are frequently listed as pirate-friendly safe harbors).
Rather than offer constructive suggestions however for how to combat piracy, the corporate protests seemed designed to upset and rally people to the cry that this legislation may be bad for business. For their business, that is. Let’s be clear about that, because it was designed specifically to protect the business of other companies who produce the valuable content being peddled in cyberspace. One protester in San Francisco, representing an online travel company, put it plainly, “this legislation is bad, it would directly impact our company.” [NY Times, Jan. 19, 2012]
It’s the self-serving tone of such protests that raises the question of integrity. There is precious little moral content in the argument that what’s bad for my business is bad, regardless of how it affects others.
Of course the protesters do not mean to suggest that their moral footing is grounded in self-interest; rather, they imply that their moral authority stems from their concern for freedom as a general principle, as well as concern for the individual information consumers in particular. Of course, this argument is also suspect because their altruism seems to flow from concern for their own customers—the consumers of information services.
These moral arguments are weak. In the first instance, the argument for freedom could just as well be claimed by their opponents who argue for the freedom to earn a living and not to have their products stolen by pirates. Freedom of information is not an issue being questioned by the legislation; piracy is. In the second instance, concern for their own customers once again begs the question of whether the protests are self-serving.
A sincere moral argument rooted in altruism would take a different course. It would demonstrate motive and desire to help solve the piracy problem. It would demonstrate resolve and commitment on the part of the Board of Directors and management to help address a problem that is significantly undermining other significant businesses in our economy.
To protect one’s self-interest with defensive arguments lacks integrity to any source of morality higher than hunger or survival. True integrity recognizes a higher calling, namely, to act out of sincere concern for others’ welfare. That is why biblical notions of morality, based in kenotic self-emptying of self-importance, are just as critical to corporate moral authority as they are to personal integrity.
Perhaps the protesters had valid reason to question the structure of these bills. In that case they might have addressed those issues head-on in a manner which carried much greater moral strength. They might have shown integrity by demonstrating their sincere concern to solve the problem. They might have offered ways to strengthen their current anti-piracy policies. And yes, because “business is business”, this would most likely cost them something in the short run. But in the long run they would have demonstrated a concern for our entire economic system and not just for their own slice of it. They would also be living into the higher calling of integrity which flows from an understanding of the biblical call to be witnesses to a greater reality than pecuniary self-interest.
Bruce Baker is an Assistant Professor of Business Ethics at Seattle Pacific University.