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Companies clearly have a responsibility for working conditions in their supply chain. But what are companies’ responsibilities in the “demand chain”? Do companies bear responsibility for the social risks of how consumers or buyers use their products? This question has been less explored, but is no less important, particularly in light of one of the most talked-about tech products now hitting the market: Google Glass.
Google Glass is prompting concern among lawmakers and advocates for safe driving, worried about what drivers will do with the Internet at their eyeballs. A California woman charged with distracted driving last fall for wearing Google Glass behind the wheel was acquitted because police couldn’t prove the device was on; even so, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association noted, “Just looking at this and using common sense, it would seem to be something someone should not be doing while they’re behind the wheel.”
Individuals must drive safely. But does Google also bear responsibility for potential harm caused by Glass users?
The United Nations Guiding Principles on business and human rights were developed over six years of wide-ranging research and consultation, including with companies and business lobbying groups, and unanimously endorsed by the Human Rights Council in 2011. (I served as an advisor to the effort.) The Principles state that companies must “avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and address such impacts when they occur.”
Google’s design, manufacture, and distribution of Glass clearly constitute Google’s “own activities”; therefore, if Glass distracts drivers and thereby causes traffic accidents, Google has a responsibility to address this issue.
So far, Google seems to feel otherwise. “When you’re wearing Glass, we just ask you to be very aware of what’s going on around you, to use it wisely, the same way you would use any technology,” said a Google spokesperson.
In other words, it’s not our problem.