Doctoral thesis

Corporate social responsibility and information and communication technology in the digital age


244 p.

Thèse de doctorat: Università della Svizzera italiana, 2020 (jury note: Summa cum laude)

English Pervasive digital technologies are transforming economies and societies worldwide. This dissertation focuses on Corporate Social Responsibilities (CSR) as the dominant model of business ethics over the last decades, in an attempt to better understand the digital transformation. Digitalization represents a fundamental and challenging transformation and promises to touch on almost all areas of life. While the broad field of CSR and business ethics have started to address this fundamental shift, research remains in its infancy, given the extent and scope of the rapidly evolving technologies. Consequently, this dissertation strives to contribute to ongoing research efforts by investigating corporate conduct in relation to the digital transformation, drawing on theories and concepts from business ethics, management, political science, surveillance studies, as well as digital and information ethics. A particular focus is thereby placed on the political impacts and shifting roles and responsibilities of corporations. The dissertation consists of six individual chapters that are embedded in an introduction, as well as a discussion and conclusion section. The six chapters are briefly depicted next. Chapter I provides an overview of corporate citizenship as a foundation for an expanded sense of politics and corporations. The chapter thereby highlights the political roles that corporations can adopt in terms of: (1) engaging in the provision of citizenship rights as quasi-governmental actors (“corporations as governments”), and (2) engaging in political decision-making processes as members of a political community (“corporations as citizen”). Based on this theoretical foundation, the chapter discusses theoretical and practical issues associated with these corporate roles, such as the scope of engagement, voluntariness, selectivity, and legitimacy. Chapter II presents and discusses legitimacy as a core concept in business ethics literature. After a brief introduction of four main approaches of ethics, Habermasian discourse ethics is outlined as a communication driven approach and cornerstone of political CSR’s framework “legitimacy as deliberation.” Along with the concept of greenwashing and astroturf lobbying, the chapter outlines how corporations can struggle with a legitimacy deficit (“legitimacy lost”). Further, it shows how companies can gain legitimacy through credible communication of their CSR commitment, and responsible lobbying (“legitimacy gained”). The chapter closes by describing limitations of corporate legitimacy creation through deliberation, rooted in idealized Habemasian normative thinking, and indicates pathways for Habermasian political CSR in the digital age. Chapter III. The digital transformation brings along novel forms of digital exchange based on ICT and data-driven platform infrastructures, known as sharing economy platforms (SEPs). SEPs reshape classical roles and responsibilities in society via institutional strategies. Against the background of political CSR theory, the chapter argues that SEPs carry the potential to contribute to the broader society when taking over new responsibilities that build on their digital capacities. The chapter outlines five initial dimensions in which SEPs may contribute to the common good, termed as platform CSR. Consequently, the chapter conceptualizes SEPs digital capacities from a political CSR perspective proposing a democratization of SEPs grounded in Habermasian and Rawlsian political CSR notions to overcome the legitimacy deficit arising with their new role. Chapter IV addresses the controversial Janus-face of surveillance as manifested by distributed ledger technology (DLT) and blockchain-based product identifiers in the Swiss luxury watch industry. Via an inductive approach to data collection and analysis, based on a survey and interviews with luxury watch experts, the chapter explores perceptions of the digital transformation in the form of DLT along with sector-specific trends and challenges. The findings reveal salient industry challenges and four distinct characteristics of the enduring transformations. Based on the findings, the chapter conceptualizes ‘networked surveillance’ as a digital transparency concept that bridges dichotomous notions of surveillance, underlining benefits of learning and control for an ethical-informed luxury watch industry. Chapter V investigates the changing political impacts of corporations in light of the emerging digitalization drawing on the illustrative case of the starry sky beetle – as a systemic environmental threat. Accordingly, the chapter explores political CSR and multistakeholder action in settings with well-functioning governments, where public and private goods are at stake. By framing digitalization in terms of transparency, surveillance, and data-sharing, the chapter shows how the digital sphere offers corporations new scope for political deliberation. Based on this advancement, the chapter develops a conceptualization and definition of data-deliberation, highlighting the potential of corporations to act as active deliberators in a Habermasian sense to better address systemic challenges. Chapter VI. Algorithmic pricing becomes increasingly widespread among corporations that use this strategy to set prices for their products and services dynamically and based on personal characteristics. To gain an in-depth understanding of this pricing approach and the ethical challenges it entails, the chapter engages in a systematic review of 315 related articles on the topics of dynamic and personalized pricing, and pricing algorithms. Given the novelty of the topic, the review provides a definition of the term algorithmic pricing and maps ethical issues along micro-, meso-, and macro-levels of society, ultimately connecting to the debates on algorithmic accountability and algorithmic governance. These six chapters separately, as well as collectively, demonstrate how digitalization changes the impacts that corporations can have in the digital age and the opportunities for corporations to adopt new roles and responsibilities in society. The dissertation offers a contribution to CSR and business ethics, explicitly advancing the research stream of political CSR and the understandings of the corporation as a political actor in the digital age. For practitioners and policymakers, the depicted digital transformation requires careful navigation to seize the opportunities it brings along. In this regard, this thesis draws managerial and policy implications.
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