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League of Nations, United Nations, Next: United Cyber Nations

In 1973 when I took my first step in the field of IT, then generally called EDP or Electronic Data Processing I didn’t have the faintest idea of what I would be doing about 30 years down the road. Even if I had attempted to envisage it I would have only imagined working with large state-of-the-art networked computers. Of course those days the size mattered. Today when I look at myself, I am partly everything; a manager, a security specialist, an IT professional and even a little bit of a paralegal professional.

My last trait has led me to studying various IT laws that were made necessary to deal with the impact on our lives of IT and specially the Internet. In this drive to learn more of the laws in this changing world I happened to read an excellent paper by Barrister Zahid Jamil on Cyber Laws.

The paper comprehensively covers the legal and jurisdictional dilemma of regulating actions of and maintaining identities of “the Cyber-citizens” while trying to maintain the Sovereigns replicating age old physical model. The paper very rightly puts forward the concept of “Cyber-citizen” as a citizen of the world and of course focuses entirely on the legal aspect recommending formulation of laws that are flexible and technology independent to be able to adapt to rapid changes that are occurring in the Cyberspace and to leave ample space for “Techies” to evolve the systems to be able to self regulate.

Though the “Techies” have been heavily involved in many initiatives like Internet Governance, Internationalized (Multi-lingual) Domain Names, Identity Management, Information Security, Access Rights Management etc., they still have to correctly apply the technologies at hand to be able to replicate many accepted norms that have matured in the physical world such as federated identities, non-repudiation, notarizing, witnessing, co-signing etc.

As the paper recommends the laws must be generic, flexible, based on international best practices and be more of a guideline for self governance to allow for the continuation of tremendous growth, which we have already witnessed and at the same time avoid systemic failure of the legal infrastructure. This and many other similar writings strongly recommend a concept I personally like to term as “United Cyber Nations” with global top level guideline based on international best practices defining laws of each sovereign and further these subordinate laws regulating contractual agreements among interacting or transacting parties.

Such a trend is already fairly noticeable in various concepts like Internet Governance, bridging of the digital divide, management of authoritative root servers, harmonization of documents in electronic form etc. as everyone realizes that the Cyberspace draws its strength from the very fact that it is flexible and it is not governed by any single regulator. Like minded people all around the world are equivocally promoting the idea of either no regulation or self regulation.

An individual in the Cyberspace is now termed as a Cybercitizen; equally we can use other terms such as Cyber-nation for a nation in the Cyberspace and Cyber-corporate a business that chooses to do business in the Cyberspace. One thing common in all these would be the capability to exist beyond any physical and political bounds.

Today a Pakistani citizen like me when traveling to another country like USA has to get a permit, know various regulations, cultural differences, and code of my expected conduct in the host country and their system. Then what is so different when I am visiting a website, a portal or a computer system in that country. The difference of course is in our psyche, our lack of knowledge of how many other systems may be part of this visit and last but not the least the conflicts or inconsistencies of the code I am used to follow with the code I am supposed to follow.

Earlier this year I had an opportunity of addressing students of University of Karachi on “Corporate Citizenship in the e-Frontier”. Though the subject seemed simple when I made my choice of the topic, the preparation of my presentation made me view it from a very different perspective. Here I would like to share my experience and understanding obtained in the process.

What is Corporate Citizenship?

Corporate Citizenship is about companies taking into account their complete impact on society and the environment, not just their impact on the economy.

Corporate Citizenship is about business assuming responsibilities that go well beyond the scope of simple commercial relationships.

One major company states in their annual report that corporate citizenship is both “a moral responsibility and an economic necessity”.

Personally I believe that being good corporate citizen in the known physical world is tough enough with ever increasing monitoring and control in the markets an enterprise chooses to operate, imagine the impact of becoming a global business in an instance that has a presence everywhere in the world.

Global Corporate Citizenship

First and foremost, our companies’ commitment to being global corporate citizens is about the way we run our own businesses.

Second, our relationships with key stakeholders are fundamental to our success inside and outside our companies.

Third, ultimate leadership for corporate citizenship rests with us as chief executives, chairmen and board of directors.

Above three golden rules were taken from a joint statement of a task force of WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM CEOs setting a framework for good Global Corporate Citizenship. Moving further the joint statement puts the case for becoming a global corporate in clear and simple words as follows:

“For most business leaders there is a compelling case for taking action on issues relating to global corporate citizenship:

• First, an individual business case, that in today’s world good corporate citizenship makes sound business sense.

It is increasingly in the shareholders’ interests for a company to have a clear purpose and set of values, not just a matter of public relations and avoiding negative publicity.

• Second, a broader case, that business prospers in societies that are prosperous.

As such, business leaders and the owners of businesses have a direct interest in the process of globalization continuing and extending its benefits to more people around the world.”

As we cannot in any way disagree with the above we also understand that while there is a compelling need for businesses to go global for business growth there is also equal need for businesses to be an exemplary corporate citizen to sustain their presence and the growth they seek. In a paper prepared by Halina Ward (Director, Corporate Responsibility for Environment and Development, International Institute for Environment and Development) for “Swedish Partnership for Global Responsibility” introduced by Swedish Prime Minister in 2002, the legal issues for Global Corporate Citizen are outlined as explained below:

Transparency and access to information

A frontier battleground - Increased reporting that addresses environmental and social issues alongside financial performance. Clear business imperative for more effective communication with other stakeholders who have the capacity to make or break a company’s reputation as a ‘good citizen’.

Mandatory reporting legislation - There is now an emerging body of legislation requiring mangers to report on their social or environmental policies.

Voluntary initiatives interacting with law

Even voluntary reporting, as a response to the various business drivers of corporate social responsibility has legal implications. (Disclosure of negative information on environmental impacts has the potential to feed compensation claims or prosecutions). Laws on misrepresentation or false advertising frame what companies may legally say about themselves.

Litigation that brings new light to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

Testing the boundaries of CSR - A new wave of legal actions aims to hold parent companies legally accountable in developed country courts for negative impacts of operations in developing countries—‘foreign direct liability’.

International law applied to companies - Almost all of the cases that test the application of international law to multinational corporations have been brought in the US, where the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) gives District Courts the power to hear civil claims by foreign citizens for injuries that are caused by actions ‘in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States. By 1997, case law had clarified the scope of the statute to cover not just foreign officials, but also claims against private individuals for injuries resulting from atrocities committed in pursuit of genocide or war crimes.

When an action in the US involves a non-US company, a key question is whether the defendant company has sufficient business presence to afford jurisdiction to the US court—A business operating in the Cyberspace could fall in the category of businesses having “Sufficient Business Presence”.

The intent of this article is to highlight the issues with individual or corporate citizenship in the Cyberspace where Information Security issues are added to the ones mentioned above and that have emerged from the rapid growth of the Internet that has proven its usefulness not only in the business but in every aspect of life be it social, political or anything else. There will be those who will propose a wait and see strategy and there will be those who will know the inherent risks and take the advantage today.

To demonstrate the potential for businesses in the Cyberspace I would like to mention here that Consumer Reports investigation in USA suggests that the losses from “Click Fraud” itself were $8 billion in past two years but online advertising (Search Engine Marketing) is still worthwhile and this business seems to be growing by the day.

With improved awareness, continued effort of techies, lawyers, entrepreneurs all working for the unified goals worldwide the World-Wide-Web (or Wild-Wild-West) will be Win-Win-Win for all of us and it will have a profound impact on businesses as well as social and political aspects of our lives.

Looking at half a century of conflicts many may strongly drum up support to the idea that United Nations has failed to deliver what was expected of it, I still believe it has provided us a forum to vent out grievances and avoid major conflicts while doing its part, however small may be, of improving our lives. I am strong proponent of replicating this model in the Cyberspace.

By Mustafa Syed, Director

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