Digital technologies have become ever more embedded in our everyday lives, introducing topical questions over their fair and ethical use. Openness and transparency in service delivery enable such requests. But, also, these trigger a change in values and attitudes that intensify pressure on governments and companies to be more accountable for the impact of their activities.
This impact might be social, economic, environmental, technological – and still, falling under the wide umbrella of the consequences of digitalisation. So how do we define this new set of expectations?
What is Corporate Digital Responsibility?
At its most general level, Corporate Digital Responsibility (CDR) is about technology and platform companies taking responsibility for the consequences of their processes, products, services. It stems from a certain “Social dissatisfaction with the way corporations, but also government regulations, are handling and delivering different services,” Linnar Viik says.
Despite emerging in the past three to five years, CDR must be framed within the wider topic of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Seeing the former just as a sub-category of the latter, however, might be a bit reductive. The connection between the two is that, as society (the social) growingly turns digital (the digital), our focal point in elaborating normative expectations toward the public and private sectors changes too.
“Being digitally responsible means taking into account the broader impact and spill-over effects of your services and actions on the society and the environment. And not only at the last mile of service delivery, but across the whole vertical value chain that leads from concept to realization and use of digital solutions, internally and externally,” Viik explains.
Everyone has a stake in advancing the cultural shift
Presenting itself as such an all-encompassing and wide topic to address, the next natural question is who is supposed to push this transformation? Though some steps have already been taken toward increasing corporate accountability for processes and products, a more definitive change of heart requires the effort of all actors of society – governments, private companies, and citizens.
- Citizens and users
Citizens, and the civil society, already do their part even just by formulating demands for digital responsibility. Somehow, we could compare them to the role of watchdogs and stewards of society itself that they cover already in advocating for responsible and transparent governance, and better democratic practices. But companies and governments are also increasingly moving towards their direction.
“How do I treat my customers? How do I treat the data of my customers? Technology companies are gradually taking better care of users’ data – nudged by regulation – but, on par with that, they start to reflect on both the environmental and human sustainability of their services. The first element might be more straightforward, but the latter is related to people’s time usage,” Viik points out.
“We cannot deny that technology companies have taken in the past the route of making a monopoly of users’ time. But I think we are starting to witness attention toward a more balanced relationship on this topic – providing a service that does not waste users’ time, but also pondering what’s the value they give to companies, and what value companies can give in return,” Viik explains.
- The private sector
Technology companies, as the market-side actor in this equation, have vested interests in keeping customers satisfied. And trust, accountability, are crucial in ensuring people’s loyalty to a platform or a service.
“Companies are starting to see that the services they provide, and they way they do that, might generate broader value for the society as a whole. Twenty years ago, in Estonia, banks and telecommunication companies came together to provide free computer and Internet training to people already outside the education system, or who did not need to use a computer in their job. It was just a mass training and formative experience, addressing their non-consumers by providing them with useful knowledge and skills,” Viik recalls.
Of course, there was a hidden agenda potentially – by learning to use new technology, the same people could access the service offering of these market actors. “Implicitly, they were expanding their potential market reach. But still, without being sure that these people would then become their customers, this is a real-life, historical example of what digital responsibility toward the society means,” Viik highlights.
The public sector is not exempt from the accountability of its digital practices. Actually, it holds a major role complementing the tasks already attributed to private companies – defining the rules of the game. First for itself, then for others too.
The corporate world has some self-regulation mechanisms. Often these are formulated spontaneously, without the need for legal norms to kickstart this process. Rather, they emerge as the result of internal and external pushes toward awareness of the big challenges of our time, and the will to do something about them. But governments also deliver services, and also use digital tools (hopefully) to do so.
“By making their practices and processes sustainable, environmentally sound, and protecting users’ data, governments have the critical role of setting the example and the scene for those multinational corporations to act in a similarly responsible way,” Viik says.
It is not too late to make a difference
Linnar Viik referenced Estonia twenty years ago but, from the same age and in the same time span, readers might pick up another – less virtuous – example. The topic of Corporate Social Responsibility, before turning digital, has long been on the discussion table. Some steps forward have certainly been made, but at what cost? Corporate culture towards more sustainable practices, both socially and environmentally, has evolved rather slowly around the world. Moreover, this was significantly pushed by wider societal upsets, manifested in squares and streets nearby international meetings back then.
What, or who, can make the difference this time? “I believe leaders will make the difference, both from the private and the public sector. But it depends on their ability to anticipate the norms that society will press to establish. I have seen quite a number of multinational platform companies, including for example Google and Facebook as well, who are trying to articulate their goals to reach more environmentally sound activities,” Viik outlines.
On the relationship with these companies, “Many countries are trying on their own to deliver the best for their citizens. But I think it is just a matter of time, and even bigger countries will soon realize that a long term, sustainable approach can only be achieved together with others, and together with digital platform companies. The GDPR experience, and the new European Commission, are good reference points to look at for that,” Viik concludes.
So, it is not too late; but we are just in time.
About the Author
The e-Governance Academy (eGA) is a non-profit foundation and consultancy that assists public sector and civil society organisations in making digital transformation happen. eGA plays key roles in e-government and digital transformation policy planni...