Who decides what is acceptable?

A few days ago an employee within Citi cut off the internet business account of a customer, Fabulis. The Citi employee determined Fabulis breached Citi rules for what internet business accounts Citi is prepared to support.

In fact it was a mistake. The employee made what seems to be a serious misjudgment that the Fabulis website contained pornography. The site didn’t contain pornography and didn’t breach Citi’s standards (although perhaps the content did breach the individual’s personal standards regarding sexual orientation) and the account has been reinstated.

Lots of interesting issues, but from a corporate responsibility perspective I am most fascinated by the question of whose values should be applied and how, by a corporation operating across regions, countries and cultures.

Citi’s clarification of the situation for Internet Business Accounts includes the statement "we will continue to reserve the right to decline or suspend an account if we find illegal or discriminatory content, or if the site involves gambling or pornography." Citi is clearly defining a set of standards, beyond legal, that they will require their customers to adhere to.

I have written a couple of posts suggesting that we should include sustainability criteria in selecting our target customers. This approach from Citi takes things a step further by refusing to do business with customers that are carrying out activities that do not meet certain standards, although they are legal.

I believe that a fundamental characteristic of corporate responsibility is ‘beyond compliance’. On a related note, as I once wrote in a blog, I believe that ‘legal doesn’t equal sustainable’.

But in practice, and employee error aside, when you start refusing to do business, the challenge is twofold. First, whose standards define what constitutes discriminatory content, pornography and gambling? Are Sports Illustrated’s ‘paint-on’ swim suits considered to be porn? Are state lotteries gambling? Are ethnic, gender or sexually oriented websites discriminatory?

And secondly who actually reviews the material and decides?

I welcome companies trying to apply their CR values broadly, but I am going to have to give a bit more thought to how it plays out in practice and where I draw the line.

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