With new power world comes new challenges, but the same responsibilities.
Much has been written about the rise of ‘new power’ businesses, at the expense of ‘old power’ models, but the responsibilities and accountability within this new approach is only just taking shape. Governments and charities are also struggling to understand their role; with trust in them eroding and technology giving access to, and commercialising, many of the services people relied on the state or third sector to provide.
Last week Uber, an exemplar of new power, was asked to decide whether it’s an app, or an employer. As an app its responsibilities are limited. Download it, maybe pay a small monthly fee, use it to access services.
But as an employer of the people providing the service, the responsibilities are very significant – staff have rights under employment law.
Uber dictates the terms by which people provide the service but, so they argue, have no responsibility for the wellbeing of the people who apply them, and make Uber very, very rich. The challenge in the courts was a case of responsibilities usually associated with an old power model being applied to a new power business.
Seeing Facebook bowing to the pressure of the masses to allow an historically significant image to be uploaded onto its site was reassuring. But equally is was frightening, and unacceptable, to see a billionaire tech mogul, who runs a near monopoly, dictating from his ivory tower what is acceptable in our society.
There are pressure groups growing across the world to resist Airbnb coming into communities for fear of the loss of short term lets for local people who cannot afford their own home. But Airbnb just run an app, they don’t have responsibility for what impact it has on the communities people chose to use it in. Do they?
So, new power businesses are not going to have it all their own way; they, like any business, have responsibilities to all stakeholders. They are not immune to the cultural shift of people seeking brands that reflect their values; exploitation, inequity and abuse of power will be challenged.
It’s fascinating to see how Airbnb has recognised the importance of this, leaping ahead of campaign groups and regulation, by asking all its hosts worldwide to agree to a binding non-discrimination clause – so they are using their power to have significant implications on social norms.
As more and more disruption is created to society by massive new power businesses we need governments to ensure the Ubers of the world operate within frameworks that are fair for all. Right now, these companies are clearly enjoying many of the benefits of being monolithic businesses operating with none of the downsides (little regulation, minimal overhead and all too often insignificant tax). To do this government will have to become braver, far smarter and much more agile.
Charities too have a critical role. In this new world, power is concentrated on a very few extremely wealthy individuals who operate based personal whim with seeming impunity, plus ça change, plus c’est la meme. Sure they have committed to some ‘good’ projects, but that should not exonerate unacceptable behaviour or absolve them from having responsibility to society. Charities must be a check and balance to commercial exploitations and governments’ weakness, or collusion with business.
Whilst ‘we the people’ ultimately have the power and hold business to account, we have to have the support of government and charity to defend what is right and wrong in our society, I certainly wouldn’t trust business with something that important.