We hear this refrain every time a murder is committed, and it has helped weapons manufacturers and retailers duck culpability (well, the Second Amendment hasn't hurt, either).
Does the same excuse work for all technologies? I ask because a fellow dim bulber sent over this story about how the Iranian Gestapo uses an Internet monitoring system built by Nokia and Siemens to snoop on its citizenry. It is reminiscent in some respects to the revelation that Hitler used IBM systems to manage the Final Solution.
In both examples, the allegation is that the technology providers knew, at least implicitly, that they were dealing with evil thugs, and that they may have had explicit knowledge that the deliverables of their contracts would get put to nefarious uses. So the question is whether, or how much, should we hold these brands accountable when their handiwork enables their clients to do bad things?
I'm not sure I have the answer.
There certainly was a flurry of angry tweets about Siemens and Nokia which, like most social media phenomena these days, peaked and subsided in about a nanosecond (a recent Twitter search yielded less than a dozen mentions over the past 6 hours, which is hardly a tidal wave). I can't find any proof that the IBM revelation in 2001 did anything to its sales.
We can argue about long-term damage to brand equity or corporate reputation, but the marketing industry is having a damned hard time finding any evidence of long-term benefits from heavy investments in and/or good news about brands. Consumers are supposed to care about attributes associated with products and services, and then qualitatively weigh them when they make purchase decisions.
Only they don't, at least not in anything past the immediate now.
I'm sure some IBM shareholders divested themselves of the stock when the Nazi connection first surfaced, and likewise more than a couple principled humans probably trashed their Nokia and Siemens phones. But after that initial rush to action, I suspect the relevance of the content receded into the blurry wash of Internet noise.
Whether we should care more is a deeper, more fascinating issue.
Businesses often turn a blind eye to some of the potential negative implications of their behavior (complying with just the letter of the law on, say, product safety, or disclosing only the barest required information on company performance). Forget complaining about the health issues of eating sausage. We really don't want to see how it's made: in a separate event, Siemens just settled with the World Bank for a cool $100 million to avoid conviction on charges of bribing government officials in at least 10 countries. Even in the most charitable analysis, it's worth discussing the indirect role companies play in influencing our lives, with at least some reasoned consideration of technology. Ultimately, guns AND and people kill people.
Social media give us the tools for such conversations, only I can't find much proof that they're being used that way. Instead, some folks declared that Nokia and Siemens are run by Satan, and others repeated the accusations. Some of the mainstream reporters added that the functions inherent in the Iranian systems are commonly used by other governments to accomplish less heinous goals. And then Michael Jackson died.
So much for context or continuity.
I don't think the Iran imbroglio will be enough to stop Siemens, Nokia, or any companies from writing future contracts that equipment could be repurposed to unexpected, or just uncomfortable uses. Their marketing communications response has been (and likely will be) to say little to nothing.
To get businesses engaged in real conversation would take a real conversation among consumers and/or investors. Angry tweets are just light entertainment.