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Balancing Innovation And Ethics: The Evolution Of CSR In The Tech Industry

As companies tussle for the OpenAI’s market’s top spot, it seems that Corporate Social Responsibility ("CSR") – a business’ commitment to ethical practices and consideration of its consequences – has been left behind.

Innovation and CSR

In fact, Microsoft’s controversial decision to reduce the size of their AI ethics team has revived debates on CSR’s core definition and significance within the tech industry. Some argue that governments should be the sole insurer of social responsibility, while others believe we would be relinquishing our collective responsibility by doing so. With these different perspectives in mind, do the implications behind Microsoft's controversy hold water? Or, more importantly, should we be concerned by them?

Microsoft’s controversial decision: Implications for Corporate Social Responsibility

Back in January 2023, Microsoft announced their daunting plan to cut off 10,000 jobs, including their “ethics and society team.” This team used to be tasked with ensuring that Microsoft’s products aligned with their AI principles of Reliability and Safety, Privacy and Security, etc. Their absence as a team enhances the risk of Microsoft putting out products that potentially violate user’s rights.

Therefore, with no one left to ensure the upheaval of ethical principles, and the company’s rush to topple a novel competitor’s use of ChatGPT, innovation may triumph over user security.

Fortunately for us, their Office of Responsible AI, which creates these principles, remains intact. But for how long?

It appears that a concerning trend was born with the rise of OpenAI, as Microsoft is not the first to reduce supervision in its product development. Indeed, Google had a similar controversy in 2020, when they fired Dr. Gebru, a prevalent researcher in the dangers and biases of OpenAI. Notably, Google terminated her employment shortly after the publication of her paper on the matter. A series of layoffs within Dr. Gebru’s team subsequently occurred, and the company cited their desire to prioritize the growth of OpenAI as the reason behind their decision.

There is an increasing focus on potential growth at the expense of ethical considerations.

In such dynamic times, the situation surrounding OpenAI brings us back to the roots of CSR; who should shoulder the responsibility of ensuring user safety?

The tech industry’s shifting focus: profit vs. ethics in CSR

Some believe companies should not handle the social corporate responsibility that businesses currently hold. Milton Friedman theorized that it should be governments who control and hold companies’ actions accountable, not the company in itself. Instead, the company’s sole role should be to maximize its profits. Such a controversial view was bound to get critiqued. R. Edward Freeman effectively highlighted that ignoring CSR, as Friedman suggested, and solely focusing on maximizing short term profit will be harmful to the company in the long term. Indeed, his “Stakeholder Theory” suggest that all stakeholders should be taken into account. By doing so, new potential shareholders will be interested in investing in the company.

It is essential, therefore, for the company to focus its efforts on PR and social responsibility.

Companies are starting to follow this pattern, with many using concern for climate change as a part of their PR strategy. Google, for instance, claims to be carbon neutral. This does not hold, however, when you account for their factories’ carbon footprint, instead of just the emission from their facilities. These actions fall under the concept of greenwashing – when companies falsely claim to be environmentally friendly. Such PR strategies highlight the possible hypocrisy behind CSR; one can falsely claim to be socially responsible, and still be perceived as such, thus negating its necessity.

So, who bears the responsibility?

The debate behind CSR goes beyond Microsoft’s or Google’s corporate boardrooms, affecting their users at large. The perspectives of influential thinkers like Friedman and Freeman prompt us to find a delicate balance between profit and ethics. Navigating this evolving sphere, the roles of governments and our collective responsibility remain unsolved. Recounting what has previously been said, as a user yourself, where do you stand? Are you for CSR or against it?

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