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Citizen Ethics: The Latest Danger For Business

Posted on August 22, 2015 at 6:45 PM

I have been thinking about Ashley Madison. In case you missed it, it's the website with the following slogan: “Life is short. Have an affair”. Its business plan appears to rely - among other things - on boredom, secrecy and instant gratification. It is in the business of marketing extra marital affairs.

But this post is not about judging the business plan. The salacious nature of the early revelations of a data breach - complete with August headlines like this....say it all. But they also risk distracting from an important focus on changing threats to business.

After a hacker group's data breach exposed some 39 million memberships on Ashley Madison's adultery website last week, the latest news is that two Canadian law firms have filed a $578m class-action lawsuit against the Toronto-based companies that run it - Avid Dating Life and Avid Life Media.

It is likely to get more messy. There is, of course, the issue of confidentiality. Then there is the issue of whether people whose identities have been revealed can be blackmailed. Regardless of what you think about those who signed up, there are whole (unknowing) families behind them waiting to blow up. Media handling of the issue has, in at least one notable case, ignored that - see Guardian report on an Australian radio network telling a wife on-air that her husband was registered.

But the real issue, I think, is about Citizen Ethics and digital know-how at a time when individuals, who are also employees, feel increasingly disconnected from the businesses for which they work, in whose employ they spend their precious time, their lives.

It's a potent combination for disruption as a bid to make one's voice heard - and sometimes, for real change.

The hackers at Ashley Madison call themselves the 'Impact Team.' They have clearly adopted a moral stance. You could call them 'disruptors' - and as the Financial Times amusingly points out about its CEO Noel Biderman:

"He saw a 'problem' — people getting found out because their affairs were too close to home — and tried to solve it. He is 'disrupting' an existing activity and finding new ways to profit from it (just don’t call it the sharing economy). Mr Biderman even casts his company as trying to change the world, arguing that data showing when people are most likely to have affairs could help improve marriages." 

So, what does it all amount to when you lose the words we invent - like 'disruption' - to catch up with changes in business ?

I wonder if it isn't symptomatic of the huge rift that is developing in businesses around the way in which people are paid and valued. Europe's migrant crisis points an unwavering finger at the steady rise of global inequality, but no one seems to have seen it coming.

CEOs of publicly listed companies earn vast amounts and far, far more than their employees, something the United States is just beginning to consider as potentially dangerous, requiring the ratio to be disclosed.

Here in the United Kingdom, where Ashley Madison announced in April that it planned to go public in London this year (according to the FT), we have a report from the High Pay Centre that tells us average CEO pay is now 183 times that of the median full-time UK worker, up from 160 times in 2010.

So, I reckon -whether you fancy yourself as a low or high level 'disruptor', know what? Your pay - if in its own orbit - is certainly not going to be a protective factor in your success.

Categories: Ethics, Governance, Technology