Monday, 08 June 2015 21:02

Behaving ethically in the Internet Age

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Should Internet companies be ruled by law or ethics?

“The law sets the floor,” Brad Smith, the CEO of Intuit (INTU, -1.35%), said during a panel on the Ethics of the Internet Society at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference. “But you still have to have judgment.” Smith said that leading ethically is essential, but also especially challenging in technology where judgment calls a CEO faces often are far ahead of societal norms. “You have to be able to clear about what you are going to stand for,” he said. But a good leader must also be willing to evolve as social norms change.

Fellow panelist Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s (TWTR, +2.86%) general counsel, largely agreed, saying that, for example, the social network bans certain forms of bullying and abuse, even though they are legally permissible. “We do not allow abuse and harassment on the platform,” she said. “We have a dedicated team of people reviewing all those complaints.” The guidelines for what is and isn’t allowed on Twitter are publicly available, she added.

For his part, the third panelist, Gen. (Ret) Stanley McChrystal, was emphatic: “You don’t want to do everything you can do legally.” The interesting conversations, he said, begin when decisions involve things that are legal but not necessarily ethical.

The wide-ranging discussion on ethics touched on a variety of issues. Each panelist was asked about the most important ethical discussion they face in their professional lives.

Gadde said it was the constant push and pull between the company’s free speech principles – it’s belief that it most defend and protect user’s voice – and the demands from repressive governments for censorship. She noted a well-known incident when Twitter refused to take down content it believed to be legal in Turkey, despite demands from the government that it did so. The result was that the government shut down access to Twitter in the country. “We as a company decided (rejecting the takedown order) was a part of or values,” she said.

At Intuit, the most fraught decisions revolve around the use of customer data, Smith said. The company has vowed, in its user agreements, not to use data in ways that are not for the benefit of consumers, he added.

McChrystal, who now runs a consulting firm that advises business leaders, said one of his ethical guideposts is candor. He then added: “It’s a fine line between brutally candid and honest and try to be a leader that can motivate.”

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