posted Oct 29, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Corporations and the Principle of Symmetry. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

I've used corporations as an example many times in this essay, but I've not directly addressed how corporations fit into this model. This is because in theory, they are just another entity and as long as the symmetry is maintained in the communication relationship, there's no special theoretical need to address corporations. But as this chapter is addressing more practical concerns, the practical implications of our large corporations should be addressed.

You may think you've detected an anti-corporate undertone in this text, but that's really not representative of my opinions. I've used corporations as examples simply because they are interesting, they get into the news and other permenent records and thus provide citations for me, and because frequently only a large corporation can take advantage of or build new technology. You simply can't run DirecTV out of your garage.

Corporations are a tool of humanity and like any other tool can be used for benefit or harm. Many things we take for granted are difficult or impossible without at least one large company involved, such as making cars. (Automobile companies are supported by hundreds of smaller companies, but there must be one final company that assembles, tests, markets, and sells the final product; those functions really can't be broken up efficiently and that's going to be a big company.) There's nothing inherently wrong with them. But practically speaking, it must be acknowledged that they can wield significantly more power then a single person, power which can easily come into play with communication relationships.

The problem is quite simply one of man power. Today, I have roughly 16 hours of wakefulness, assuming an 8-hour sleep cycle. Every workday, a corporation receives on average slightly more then eight man-hours from each employee. That is to say, for a 10,000 person company, for my 16 hours today, that company received 80,000 man-hours of life (rounding to 8 man-hours), 5,000 times more then me.

Now suppose this company sues me, and we get into a drawn out lawsuit that occurs over the course of a year, and consumes roughly a quarter of my year meeting with lawyers, rotting in jail, preparing defense, worrying such that I can't productively do anything else, etc. (That's probably conservative on my part; it could easily completely destroy my year.) If I live a nearly-average (and conviently rounded) 75 years, that's a third of a percent of my entire life. (If you're willing to call it the entire year, that's one and a third of a percent of my life. If I died tommorow, that would be a full 4% of my life, as I'm near a rounded-by-luck 25.)

Let us suppose this lawsuit also eats three lawyers and the equivalent of one administrator year, for a total of 50 * 5 (fifty weeks, five days a week) * 8 (eight hours a day) * 4 (four people) = 8,000 thousand man-hours. Now, that may sound like a lot but it's only a tenth of one day for the 10,000 person company.

In terms of communication issues, I think that practical symmetry requires thinking about the following considerations, above and beyond normal concerns like monopolistic or oligarchic practices:

  1. EULAs and other truly massive contracts: A corporation can produce a truly massive contract that the average person is effectively incapable of understanding. A person has no equivalent ability to produce stupifying amounts of legal verbiage; even a single lawyer can't match the output of a well-funded legal team. A large contract that is otherwise perfectly fair and honest may itself be intrinsically unethical simply because there's no way for a customer to discover it is fair and honest, and it is unethical to ask someone to enter into a contract they can not possibly understand. This affects not just EULAs but all contracts with people, both explicit and implicit; we need to recognize there is an upper limit to the complexity an individual can be asked to deal with. In fact, I won't push this claim in this essay except by mentioning it here, but I think a case could be made that this consideration alone renders nearly all current DRM systems unethical due to their highly technical and complicated natures.
  2. Manpower for enforcement: On more then once occaision, my cable modem service has dropped out for entire days; sometimes it eventually fixed itself and and I didn't have to call, other times I have. At no time did I ever receive any sort of compensation or for that matter even an apology. What am I going to do, waste a significant portion of my day trying to get a pointless symbolic gesture?

    On the other hand, if I pay all of my bill but a penny, they will still come after me for the penny. I do not know how far they would push the issue and while it would be an interesting experiment I'm not willing to put my credit history on the line for this. My point is that a corporation, through the economy of scale it gets through its size advantage and automation advantage, can afford to really hold me to my end of the contract. There's an asymmetry here, because they've slipped several times.

    Of course, it's actually worse then that. They're a big conpany with lots of lawyers. Technically, the contract states that while I will pay without fail the bill the company sends out for me or suffer great consequences, in return, they will try to deliver service, but if they fail, well, gee, that's too bad. They aren't responsible for anything, up to and including returning money for service not received. If they do return some money it is out of the goodness of their heart. This is one manifestation of point #1.

  3. Manpower for lawsuits: The simple threat of a lawsuit is a powerful weapon a corporation has. An individual finds it impossible to wield that weapon for the same reason a threat is so effective for the corporation; see the math above. Now imagine that lawsuit was frivolous in the first place; the frivolous corporate suit can be devestating, the frivolous individual suit a mere annoyance. There's power there that needs acknowlegement.
  4. Manpower for technology: A corporation can mandate DRM on its data. I personally can not right now, and I don't see it happening for a long time. There's an asymmetry in a movie studio effectively protecting its messages with restrictive DRM while I can not protect my privacy-sensitive information (or really any information) with equally effective DRM. This is largely a "natural" restriction right now, as even if useful DRM for personal privacy-sensitive information is developed it will be a long time before it is feasible and in use. But it nevertheless is a significant asymmetry for an individual vs. a corporation right now.

Corporations aren't people; if they are people, they are some sort of wierd, powerful "person" that could legimately be called "superhuman". We shouldn't treat them as the same as normal people, legally.

I honestly don't know what to do about this practically, and it obviously extends beyond merely communication issues. I'm not satisfied with any proposals I've seen so far to try to rectify this problem. But it's a real problem and it's only going to get bigger and more relevant as the armament available to corporations such as DRM improves. I do not know how to convert theory into practice here. But I think we need to consider that very carefully as a society or we will regret it as individuals in the future.


Site Links


All Posts