Western companies are used to dealing with dictators. Russia got them on them

The exodus sheds light on what some of these companies were doing in Russia in the first place – and why it took an act of war to change their tune. One company particularly in the spotlight is Nokia.

On Monday, The New York Times revealed how Nokia for years provided equipment and services that backed Russia’s extensive surveillance system used to spy on dissidents. Although Nokia denounced the invasion of Ukraine and said it would halt sales in the country, the company told The Times it was required to manufacture products that complied with the surveillance system.

In other words, it was just about the cost of doing business in Russia.

In a statement, Nokia said the Times article was misleading, pointing out that the company “does not manufacture, install or service” the monitoring tools. “We condemn any misuse of lawful interceptions to violate human rights,” he said. “To avoid this, there is a strong need for multilateral action to ensure that sufficient frameworks are put in place.”

Laws versus ethics

There is no evidence that Nokia did anything illegal, but ethics and laws are not the same thing.

It’s hard to imagine that Nokia didn’t know what was going on in Russia. A Russian intelligence expert who spoke to The Times said Nokia “needed to know how its devices would be used”.

Experts say that no business (or consumer, for that matter) can keep their hands perfectly clean. The vast and interconnected nature of global supply chains makes it virtually impossible to avoid interaction – direct or indirect – with corruption, labor exploitation or other unsavory elements of global trade.

So the question is how close you are to bad behavior, says Jason Brennan, professor of business ethics at Georgetown University.

“No one is ready to swim in a pool when there is a corpse in the pool, but you are ready to swim in the ocean… It’s kind of about the concentration of death around you “, he says. “Markets are a bit like that too.”

Simply put, Nokia may not have manufactured the technology that was spying on the Russians, but it showed the Russian authorities how to hook it up, and that should have been a big red flag for the company’s top brass.

Documents reviewed by The Times show the company knew it was activating the Russian surveillance apparatus. It was a core and lucrative business for Nokia, reports the Times, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue.

Nokia has called on governments to set clearer rules on where technology can and cannot be sold. “Nokia does not have the ability to control, access or interfere with any lawful interception capability in the networks our customers own and operate,” he told the newspaper.

It’s a common refrain of big corporations struggling to control themselves: they’re asking governments to step in to protect them from our basest urges. (See: Zuckerberg, Mark.)

Find the right balance

This is not a new dilemma for multinationals. Big Tech, in particular, has struggled to balance the democratic ideals of free speech and privacy with the realities of doing business in authoritarian markets such as China and Russia, where those rights are absent. .

Apple, for example, has long prided itself on ensuring the privacy of its customers. But in China, Apple had to bend those values ​​to comply with regulators.

A Times investigation last summer found that Apple helped the government censor the Chinese version of the App Store and put Chinese customer data at risk. Apple denied some of the report’s findings, saying it was only removing apps to comply with Chinese law.
Likewise, chips made by Intel and Nvidia would help power the computers that China uses in its mass surveillance of Muslim minorities.
And last year, Microsoft said it inadvertently deleted images of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown around the world on its Bing search engine – a rare example of China’s strict internal censorship spreading across the globe. beyond its borders.

Tech leaders, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, have argued that participating in authoritarian markets is better than staying on the sidelines. But that often means complying with the regimes responsible for human rights abuses – and, sometimes, assisting them in those prosecutions.

Brennan, the business ethics professor, argued that corporations should not directly help a totalitarian government, even if local laws require them to. “You can’t do it because you were ordered to do it, and you can’t do it for money,” he said.

And if that means losing a ton of money, so be it. “You can’t do bad for $200 billion. You can’t do it for a million. It’s just basic ethics,” Brennan added.

That said, there’s good news for companies like Nokia looking for some help getting their act together: doing the right thing is good business. It’s not just good for PR – it’s good for the bottom line.

Consumers and investors are increasingly aware of the behavior of their companies, and companies have taken notice. Watch how quickly Disney reversed its response and actions after initially refusing to oppose Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay Bill. And the speed of Russia’s exodus among Western brands underscores a relatively new era in which investors and customers demand that brands do more than maximize profits at all costs.

Companies should therefore do the right thing and pass up often lucrative opportunities to aid the bad intentions of opposing governments. If they give in to their impulses, their actions will have consequences – for businesses and for the world.

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