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Lobbying vs. capitulating in business and government: Chris MacDonald

 U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in a rare prime-time address to the nation from the East Room of the White House on July 25, 2011 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Jim Watsonl/Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in a rare prime-time address to the nation from the East Room of the White House on July 25, 2011 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Jim Watsonl/Getty Images)

Should the public be more worried when powerful corporations try to sway government, or when they capitulate to them?

Or, to put it another way, if the public worries when big business lobbies government, should it also worry when big business lobbies government to protect something the public cares about, such as privacy?

Case in point: Google, Facebook, Apple and other tech companies have joined forces to launch a new campaign aimed at curtailing government use of the companies’ networks and data for surveillance and intelligence purposes. The campaign included an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama asking for tighter controls on government’s attempts to access information gathered and retained by the companies in the course of business. Privacy advocates are bound to be pleased, given the enormous quantity of information the companies hold, and the previously unimagined level of access that we now realize the U.S. government in particular has been seeking, and obtaining.

But this move means that these massive corporations are trying to shift government policy on a particular issue. They are, in other words, lobbying. And lobbying is an activity that makes a lot of people uncomfortable: they worry that corporations, with their slick hired-gun lobbyists and their deep pockets, are simply too influential and too liable to get their way too often. Indeed, some people think corporate lobbying should be outlawed. Many more think there should be serious limits on what corporations can do, and in particular on what they can spend, to try to get their way.

So which makes us more uncomfortable: the idea of big business collaborating with government (whether in the U.S. or in China), or the idea of big business using its persuasive powers to resist government?

Of course, we don’t necessarily have to choose. Some will want to have their cake and eat it too. Corporate influence is usually bad, they’ll say. But this time is different. This time, corporations are fighting the good fight. In trying to get Big Brother to stop peeking in the window, they’ll say, these Internet giants are fighting on the side of right.

That’s an awkward position to hold if you’re used to arguing against the evils of corporate influence. It’s a bit like watching the town bully beat up someone who really deserved it: you might well like the outcome today, but still be worried that there’s someone in town with that much punching power, and that much willingness to use it. And note the difficulty of putting in place any limit on lobbying that allows public-good lobbying but forbids narrow, self-interested lobbying: the distinction is far too subjective, and it is far too difficult to determine from the outside just what a corporation’s interest are, in the eyes of internal strategists.

In the end, I come down on the side of a relatively permissive set of standards. We should keep worrying, and stay watchful, but in the end it is better that tens of thousands of corporations try to influence government—all pulling in slightly different directions—than that they all mindlessly bend to government’s will.

Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education and Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management. You can follow him on Twitter at @ethicsblogger