Time to get ethical

Leading hardware vendors have drafted their own code of conduct but it doesn't go far enough

Much is made of the potential for IT and communications technology to make the world a better place.

References to the altruistic benefits of technology litter the speeches of Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Carly Fiorina and the rest of the techorati. Information is power and that power can be a force for good.

Technology and the Internet can indeed do good -- up to a point. That point was highlighted by the Catholic charity CAFOD in January with a damning report on the 'sweatshop' conditions in some of the factories used by HP, IBM and Dell.

CAFOD asked some serious questions about the gap between IT vendors' employment practices and the principles piously claimed by their senior management. In some instances it wasn't so much a gap as a grand canyon.

Nine months on and the three companies singled out in the CAFOD report -- IBM, Dell and HP -- have signed up to a new Electronics Industry Code of Conduct. That Code tackles labour practices, health and safety and environmental protection -- many of the issues in the report. Coincidence? We don't think so. Nike taught everyone a lesson: public opinion is more sensitive to bad truths than glossy marketing.

The original CAFOD report was a long time coming (as ZDNet UK pointed out at the time), and the Code is equally tardy -- albeit a good start.

But CAFOD claims there still many 'unanswered questions' about the code -- not least about checking compliance and progress. Six months from now, how many suppliers will IBM, Dell, HP and their ilk have sacked? There's no commitment to publish the results, but we'd like to know.

We'd also like to see more regulation of working practices in the global IT industry, preferably through an international agency and ideally under the UN. Look under your laptop, and you'll see a flock of labels saying your device complies to national and international electrical, radio and safety standards. If we can do that, we can label our IT equipment for compliance with basic social standards. It's all about good citizenship and everyone in the supply chain -- including the end consumer -- can and should play a part. Give us the information, as CAFOD has so eloquently and effectively demonstrated, and we will.

The IT industry is about making money but so long as its leaders protest that it's about so much more than that, its time we all put pressure on them to live up to their promises.