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Apple vs. FBI: Clash of a company’s moral obligations

Does a company have a soul?

That is, does it have “moral obligations”?

It’s now increasingly likely that the existential battle between Apple and the FBI over searching iPhones for national security is heading to the Supreme Court. But it is certainly heading into the court of public opinion.

Apple and its supporters — especially Silicon Valley icons such as Bill Gates — contend that the Iphone search issue must ultimately be “adjudicated” by vigorous public debate, in the courts, but ultimately by the public’s representatives in Congress. 

This extended public debate could affect the FBI’s securing timely information on domestic terrorism.

Important as it is, the Apple/FBI confrontation also opens up the central question for all companies: What does it now mean to be “a good corporate citizen”? It’s instructive to reflect on the new analysis of New York Times business columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin. In his reflection, “When the Moral High Ground Lacks Clear Boundaries” he writes:

“Aside from the thicket of legal issues raised by the case, does Apple have a moral obligation to help the government learn about the attack? Or does it have a moral obligation to protect its customers’ privacy? Or how about its shareholders? And which of these should take preference? … At what point is there a moral obligation for a company to help law enforcement, regardless of the business, or privacy risk, in the event of a terrorist attack, or any crime?”

Perplexing questions. Worthy of what can be expected to be extended public debate — even in the context of an urgent terror-related investigation. (St. John’s University in New York offers the course, “Theology 3305 Moral Theology of the Marketplace”.)

Yes, corporate social responsibility has come a very long way since Milton Friedman, critical of the nascent CSR evolution, asked the question in 1970: “What does it mean to say that ‘business has responsibilities’?”

Clearly CSR still has a long way to go in response.