Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) guidelines for your business

These days it seems that the entire world is talking about the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). But what exactly CSR comprises is often unknown and in fact, there is an almost infinite number of definitions for this concept. This blog sheds some light on CSR and sustainability and explains which internationally recognised tools your company can implement.

Having a CSR Manager or a Sustainability Officer has become a standard of our time, and countless companies are publishing CSR or Sustainability Reports. By the same token, publications and business practices around CSR have become so diverging that a comparison is often impossible. I’m not even starting to talk about transparency and verifiability, but for instance simply about the differentiation between CSR and Sustainability. While CSR generally focuses more on employees and other stake- and shareholders (the social aspect), the concept of sustainability refers to (but not exclusively) the environmental pillar. Typically, sustainability refers to the concept of using resources in a way that does not affect the conditions for future generations (see for instance the Brundtland Report from 1987). However, how companies execute CSR and/or sustainability programmes is highly individual and not comparable. This leads all too often to situations where businesses are accused of greenwashing – either if the PR department is more active than the CSR Manager himself or if the public simply does not understand what the company is doing. But here is the good news: there are a good handful of guidelines and initiatives which support companies in becoming good players and which do make approaches and results more comparable.

While the following list is not exhaustive, it does outline the biggest, most famous, and most representative six initiatives, guidelines and principles which might help your company to become an even more responsible actor.

Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)

The GRI is an NGO that helps businesses and governments to control their impacts on climate change, human rights, corruption, and more. The idea behind the GRI is to make sustainability, ESG- and CSR reports clearer, more focused and comparable. According to a KPMG survey, 63% of the Global 100 Companies and 75% of the Fortune 250 are using the GRI reporting framework.

UN Global Compact (UNGC)

As the name implies, the initiative of the Global Compact is “compact”. In fact, they only include ten principles which are derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Labour Organization, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the Convention against Corruption. With more than 8000 businesses and over 4000 non-business participants, the Global Compact is the largest Corporate Sustainability (CS) Initiative in the world. The UNGC was formed in July 2000 and is one of the longest-serving CSR guidelines.

ISO 26000

The ISO 26000:2010 from the International Organization for Standardization are the perhaps best known CSR guidelines for businesses. They were published in 2010 and aim at providing guidance on how businesses and organisations might operate in a socially responsible manner, rather than imposing requirements. In other words, ISO 26000 is no certification but rather helps to clarify what CSR is and how it can be applied. ISO 26000 can be linked with the OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises and the SDGs, which are both explained below.

OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises

The OECD Guidelines include a range of areas, such as human rights, labour rights, and the environment. This approach takes the supply chain into consideration, covers several business sectors and is backed by governments. While the guidelines are not legally binding for businesses, they are binding for the governments who signed them. The OECD Guidelines are especially interesting for multinational enterprises which get clear recommendations from the OECD (and consequently from the governments) on responsible business conduct. While the first version of these guidelines dates back to 1976 they were revised several times, with the latest version being published in 2011.

UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs)

The UNGPs consist of 31 principles and encompass three pillars: The State Duty to Protect Human Rights, The Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights, and Access to remedy for victims of business-related abuses. This means, that they are not only important for (international) enterprises, but also for the governments to ensure that normative standards are guaranteed within their sovereignty. Although they are rather new (2011), they are widely recognised and especially important when it comes to human rights.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The SDGs were set up by the UN in January 2015 and are seen as a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” The UN target is that all the 17 SDGs – including 169 targets within them – are achieved by 2030. The goals range from No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Gender Equality, Climate Action, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions to Partnerships. The SDGs are widely recognised and propose 232 approved indicators to measure compliance.

This list only provides an overview of the most common tools and it is important to understand that there are many other CSR guidelines, declarations, and principles. The International Labour Organization, for instance, published the MNE Declaration (Multinational Enterprises) as their instrument to ensure responsible and sustainable workplace practices. And the European Union published a renewed EU strategy 2011-14 for Corporate Social Responsibility in which they emphasize the multidimensional nature of CSR as well as the role of public authorities and other stakeholders to ensure that business acknowledges its social responsibility.

Opportunities and threats of transparency in the extracting industry

Why you should be transparent – and why not

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The Internet made the world more transparent, transparency creates credibility, credibility increases reputation – and a good reputation is the essence in todays’ age of the internet. The formula of this cycle is easy to understand. But is it also correct? What if transparency complicates business, what if published information is misunderstood, and what if your stakeholders prefer to withhold information? Will transparency suddenly become a curse rather than open, good intention? This article shows the importance but also the consequences of transparency in the often-criticized extractive industry.

Transparency is the “Swiss army knife of policy tools”. A description that is often made – and not without good reason. Transparency challenges the privacy of companies and state sovereignty over and over again. Invoked in many highly critical areas such as security, financial policy, economics, corruption, human rights, and the environment, to name but a few. Thus, industries involved in all these areas are the most challenged. This applies, among other sectors, to the raw materials industry – regardless of whether gold and diamonds are extracted, oil drilled, or gas shipped to foreign countries: this is about safety for employees and the environment, about technological leadership, about human rights – and about money. A lot of money.

Being a winner thanks to transparency

Particularly in developing countries and emerging markets, the management of natural resources can generate revenues that are important for economic growth and social development. However, failure to disclose information on these revenues can lead to mistrust, weakening of administrative and governance standards, or even conflict. If it leads to conflicts or disregarded human rights standards, bad publicity is awaiting around the corner for the companies involved; damaging their reputation, followed by financial losses. Transparency with regard to the management of raw materials is an important prerequisite for ensuring that a country’s natural resources benefit the population. Because publicly accessible information promotes an informed debate on the management and use of natural resources. This way, the citizens of a country may hold accountable those being responsible in politics and businesses. Local politicians may show how they deal responsibly with the environment, international companies show that they behave legally, economically and (hopefully) morally correct, and the home countries of the involved companies may check that international standards are being observed.

Many companies are pro-transparency…

When it comes to transparency, involved companies often have to balance interests, because many of them advocate disclosure of the money flows to promote their own credibility, especially in their countries of origin – mostly OPEC countries – where commodity traders often have to listen to a lot of criticism. Transparency helps to reduce prejudices, correct misinformation and fight fake news. The own employees stand behind the company, and the cooperation with NGO’s becomes easier and more fruitful for both sides. At Exxon Mobil for instance, this is expressed as follows:

“We are committed to sincere and ethical behaviour and to fighting corruption by promoting transparency initiatives. In the countries where we do business, we are actively committed to signing transparency agreements to disclose government revenue. In detail, these are: Azerbaijan, Chad, the joint development zone of Nigeria/São Tomé and Príncipe, Kazakhstan and Nigeria.” ExxonMobil, 2019

ExxonMobil proved that these are not just empty words when back in 1998 they led a consortium of Western oil companies asking the World Bank to jump on board for a planned pipeline project in Chad and Cameroon. The idea was that the Bank’s involvement offset the reputational risk posed by investing in a conflict-prone, undemocratic country through a project drawing high levels of NGO attention. The bank agreed to draft a plan on how Chad should manage its future returns. In addition to protections of the environment and local communities, the resulting legislation required transparent and development-focused revenue expenditures monitored by oversight bodies which included civil society, legislative, and international members (Gillies, 2010).

… but are being slowed down by governments

Yet, implementing transparency does not always achieve its desired outcomes. Studies have found that despite the EITI auditing requirement (I’ll explain this later), member states (and companies) may not produce complete and reliable data (Van Alstine, 2014).Also, the lack of a strong and educated domestic civil society that can actually understand “transparency” may hinder the effectiveness of revenue transparency. In many countries, residents do not even know which rights they actually have. Thirdly, there is no scientific evidence that a transparent cash flow actually contributes to better and more resource-oriented growth. And finally, there are also quite trivial reasons why governments have little interest in transparency: corruption, money laundering and self-enrichment occur again and again. In order to counteract these unpleasant aspects, global initiatives have been in place since the late 1990s to achieve greater transparency – By the way: at the same time, the term CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) became increasingly popular.

International initiatives

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) is probably the best-known and largest global initiative for greater financial transparency and accountability in the collection and disclosure of revenues from natural resource extraction. The standard is implemented in some 50 countries around the world by governments in collaboration with business and civil society. Information on tax payments, licenses, production volumes and other important data relating to the extraction of energy and mineral resources must be disclosed. Many large corporations are active members of the initiative, including Swiss based Glencore for example:

“Glencore is committed to high standards of corporate governance and transparency and welcome increased transparency around the redistribution and reinvestment of such payments. We seek to maintain long-term, open, transparent and cooperative relationships with tax authorities in our host countries.” Glencore, 2019

Of course, there are countless other organizations and social movements promoting more transparency. For example, Transparency International, which fights corruption worldwide. And “Publish what you pay” (PWYP), founded from an alliance of London-based NGOs, including Global Witness, Open Society Institute, Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), Oxfam GB, Save the Children UK, and Transparency International UK, now includes more than 650 civil society organisations in over 50 countries.

In summary: Transparency yes, but…

Ironically, some companies are afraid that too much transparency will make them vulnerable because their value chains are complicated. This can lead to public shaming, which in turn creates complex reputational dynamics. For instance, a company could perceive that bad press scares off consumers, attracts legal investigations, lowers employee morale, and threatens shareholder confidence. Nevertheless, the benefits of transparency clearly outweigh and will become even more important in the future. Because “not to inform” is much more likely to cause negative publicity. And in the age of the Internet, a multinational company can simply no longer afford this.


Gillies, A. (2010) ‘Reputational Concerns and the Emergence of Oil Sector Transparency as an International Norm’, International Studies Quarterly. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 54(1), pp. 103–126. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2478.2009.00579.x.

Van Alstine, J. (2014) ‘Transparency in Resource Governance: The Pitfalls and Potential of “New Oil” in Sub-Saharan Africa’, Global Environmental Politics, 14(1), pp. 20–39.

The fear of reputational loss – A case study on climate models

Reliability issues and the consequences for scientists, policy makers and the media

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Global Climate Models (GCM) play a crucial role in understanding climate change in general and anthropogenic climate change specifically. With growing importance, their reliance is key to predict manmade climate change and to deduce consequential actions. This is where a considerable debate over fidelity and utility starts. If GCM’s fail due to a lack of information, calculation errors or natural anomalies in the climate system, climate change deniers instantly use this momentum to criticize governments approaches towards a low or even zero carbon future. For international organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), part of the UN and responsible for reports about climate change, but also for policy makers who have to deduce actions and finally the media who has to inform the public, there is a lot at stake, especially the potential of a reputational loss.

Reliability issues of global climate models

Constructing a climate model means selecting thousands of different parameters which need to be assessed and weighted individually. Understandably these highly sophisticated models are fragile towards errors since just one wrongly weighted variable will result in an unprecise outcome. And there are more difficulties: The models are only capable of taking into account 20th century observations and are therefore unable to calculate with a decadal-to-century timescale. Criticism is not new as Spencer and Christy (1990) argued almost 30 years ago that the tropical troposphere temperature, measured by a satellite, did not show a similar warming to that of the tropics surface temperature. They saw this as proof that no global warming took place and hence the so-called greenhouse effect was in fact non existing. Not surprisingly those findings were picked up immediately by a conservative radio show (Rush Limbaugh) and were used as proof against climate change. Today, various researchers also point out that there is evidence that climate models are exaggerating the effect of global warming due to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide – one of the measures for anthropogenic climate change. Despite the criticism, though, GCM’s are undoubtedly important for various actors and, by the way, GCM’s are backed up by a majority of researchers. So, who has to deal with GCM’s and what are the risks they deal with?

“I don’t believe it” Donald Trump on the Fourth National Climate Assessment

Impact for international organizations and policy makers

First and foremost: International organizations and policy makers. One of the most prominent examples are the reports produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which are responsible for the knowledge used in the Paris Agreement in 2015. Needless to say, that the IPCC is therefore keen not to make any mistakes and relies on exact models. This is where the issues outlined in the previous paragraphs play a significant role, because the IPCC had to deal with a potentially negative finding: Some researchers noted that the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) was formulated less precise than the Forth Assessment Report (AR4) which was published several years earlier. This basically means, that the IPCC had to admit that the real impact of humans on climate change is not as well-known as they had thought.

Putting the critics aside, the IPCC is by no mean casual when setting up new reports and is eager to work with a huge variety of scientists from all over the world in order to write the most precise assessments. When asked to write a new report, the IPCC usually starts with a scoping phase. This includes drafting an outline and developing the most suitable experts who are nominated by governments and observer organizations. Once the panel and the outline are approved, authors are nominated and at a later stage selected by the IPCC. The authors are then asked to prepare a first draft which is reviewed by an expert’s panel. The second draft is accompanied by an extended Summary for Policymakers (SPM) and both documents will be reviewed by governments and experts. From this point onwards, the draft papers go back and forth between the expert’s panel and the involved governments until a final draft is set up. This final draft will then be approved and accepted by all involved parties and is prepared to be published as an official IPCC report. (IPCC, 2017)

Challenge for the media

Once the reports (e.g. IPCC) are published, they do not only affect policy makers but also public perception about (anthropogenic) climate change. Hence, it is fair to say that the way the media construct scientific knowledge influences the public opinion strongly (Antilla, 2010). Google, for instance, lists more than half a million findings for the IPCC’s last assessment report, and newspapers all over the world covered those findings. Yet, for newspapers and other outlets climate change is still a bit of a hot potato due to several reasons. Writing about risks in the future, based on climate change models and reports, is not the same as an objective report about something that has already happened and for which there is proof. This results in a situation, where climate change friendly journalists may be accused as sensationalist, while climate change deniers are seen as non-scientific, too industry friendly or even conspiracy driven. Yet, many journalists realized the significance of media coverage on climate change issues, since coverage is of great importance to support politicians and NGO’s in their attempt to implement new rules, laws, and recommendations.

“There’s a risk that writing about risks in the future will end up being sensationalist or exaggerated. But frankly the public is better served by information about future risks that they can do something about than about those that have already played out” Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist

Symbiotic systems need trust, and trust is reputation

The danger that just one of the involved parties does a foul play – resulting in unforeseeable reputational damage for all actors – is not to be dismissed and should, for as good as possible, be eliminated. For the scientific part, this means that findings should be backed up as good as possible by regulations, frameworks and peer reviews. For governments and international organizations, the challenge is to make sure that the deduced action is in the best interest of everyone and not just for the own or associated countries. And last but not least, journalists must be careful that they speak as objectively as possible about climate change, so that their message is not categorised as either too sensational or too much of climate denying.

Scientists, international organizations, policy makers and the media. Those four involved parties are heavily dependent on each other and live, at least to some extent, in a symbiotic system, which means that trust amongst the partners is crucial. Trust, in this case, means having a clean reputational sheet – and an honest and transparent handling of the data amongst all players.

References and further reading

Antilla, L. (2010) ‘Self-censorship and science: A geographical review of media coverage of climate tipping points’, Public Understanding of Science, 19(2), pp. 240–256. doi: 10.1177/0963662508094099.

Curry, J. (2017) ‘Assignment 1 Curry-2017 Climate Models .pdf’, GWPF, GWPF Brief, pp. 1–12.

Douglass, D.H & Singer, S. F. (2005) ‘Climate Data Disagree with Climate Models Policy Dilemma: Should We Believe in Atmosphere or in Models?’, American Geophysical Union.

IPCC (2013a) ‘Appendix A to the Principles Governing IPCC Work’, (February 2003), pp. 15–18.

IPCC (2013b) Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group 1 to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Available at: report/ar5/wg1/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf.

IPCC (2014) Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report; Chapter Observed Changes and their Causes, Ipcc. Edited by F. Pachauri, Rajendra K Meyer, Leo Van Ypersele, Jean-Pascal Brinkman, Sander Van Kesteren, Line Leprince-Ringuet, Noëmie Van Boxmeer. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2559.2002.1340a.x.

IPCC (2017) ‘The IPCC and the Sixth Assessment cycle’, IPCC Leaflets, p. 4. Available at:

Lloyd, E. A. (2012) ‘Confirmation and Robustness of Climate Models’, Philosophy of Science, 77(5), pp. 971–984. doi: 10.1086/657427.

Lynn, J. and Zabula, W. (2006) ‘outcomes-of-cop21-and-ipcc @’. IPCC. Available at:

Nisbet, M. and Mooney, C. (2006) ‘The Next Big Storm: Can Scientists and Journalists Work Together to Improve Coverage of the Hurricane-Global Warming Controvery?’, Commitee for Skeptical Inquiry. Available at:

Parry, M. L. et al. (2007) Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Available at:

Spencer, R. and Christy, J. (1990) ‘Precise monitoring of global temperature .pdf’, Science, 247, pp. 1558–1562.

Weatherhead, E. C. et al. (2017) ‘Designing the Climate Observing System of the Future’, pp. 80–102. doi: 10.1002/eft2.267.

Winsberg, E. (2012) ‘Values and Uncertainties in the Predictions of Global Climate Models’, Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, 22(2), pp. 111–137. doi: 10.1353/ken.2012.0008.

The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Scandal – Part II

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The scandal erupts

The rise of Facebook seems to be one of the most successful stories ever. What began in 2004 as a platform for Harvard students became popular and conquered the world in a very short period of time. Within 15 years, Facebook has become one of the most powerful corporations in the world, playing a major role in shaping the online environment. Although the company has had to deal with criticism again and again, nothing hit it as hard as the (un)voluntary cooperation with Cambridge Analytica. Most likely the most famous data scandal the world has ever seen, the aftereffects and reputational damage are still very difficult to assess.

2018 did not start well for Cambridge Analytica and its CEO Alexander Nix. In February – just one month before the bomb dropped – Mr. Nix told the British parliament that CA did not receive data from Facebook, which very soon turned out to be a lie. Only days later, several news outlets published a secretly taken film where Nix talked about “beautiful Ukrainian girls” to discredit political opponents in Sri Lanka. This was not the first secret recording in which Nix boasted about CA’s (illegal) activities.

A few days later, on March 17, 2018, the scandal was about to fully hit the fan when The Guardian and The New York Times simultaneously published a story, based on insider information received from a whistle-blower, about how a British consultancy firm helped the Ted Cruz presidential campaign in 2015. Within a week, the story became the perhaps biggest scandal about data mining to date, with newspapers worldwide writing about data misuse on Facebook and the manipulative activities of CA. The two main protagonists saw themselves, at least at the beginning, in the role of the victims. It took both companies several days before they finally broke their silence. CA denied to have broken any laws and also denied using the data during the US presidential election in 2016. Facebook, on the other hand, apologised to users with a letter in various newspapers but only called the scandal a “breach of trust”.

The apology came too late, though, and it didn’t address the issue in detail. As a consequence, it wasn’t perceived as honest. The public outrage was immense – Google alone listed 129 million findings addressing the term “Facebook data scandal” and 1.92 million results for “Cambridge Analytica data scandal”. The bosses of both companies felt compelled to take a public stand for the second time. Alexander Nix’s was suspended from Cambridge Analytica on March 20. Next up was Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In early April 2018, he stated that Facebook would undergo a reform in its policy to prevent a similar breach. Facebook also decided to implement the new EU data protection regulations (GDPR) in all areas of operations worldwide on a voluntary basis. Ye,t the reputational damage was severe and as it turned out not just for the short run. On April 10, 2018, Mr. Zuckerberg had to endure an uncomfortable testimony before the US Congress and one month later, he also had to stand trial before the EU Parliament.

2018: The aftermath

In late April, Facebook had to reveal its first quarterly report after the scandal broke out. Despite an immense fall in Facebooks stock prices between March and April 2018, the report showed that Facebook has had the second strongest quarter in its history, generating a revenue of $11.97 billion in the first quarter of the year. Shareholders seemed to be relieved about the fact that the share price not only stabilized, but it even reached a new all-time high in July 2018. However, the joy was short-lived when, on July 26, it became public that 3 million European users had deleted Facebook as a consequence of data abuse. Facebook was caught up by its recent past for a second time and the share price literally collapsed and plummeted by $109 billion – with no end in sight. Still in July, UK’s “watchdog”, the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office), announced to fine Facebook with £500,000 for the data scandal, which was the maximum fine possible under the old data protection rules. “Even after the discovery of data misuse in December 2015, Facebook did not do enough to ensure that those who continued to hold the data had taken adequate and timely remedial action, including deletion,” was the verdict of the ICO. Cynics might argue that this fine was a modest price to pay – a mere  0.05% of the company’s free cash flow.

While the consequences for Facebook seemed to be very unpleasant, Cambridge Analytica and its mother company SCL Group,  were hit even harder. Within the first days of the scandal, both companies lost many clients who left as a response to the public pressure. The reputational damage was perceived as too heavy to continue operations. On May 1st, 2018, just about 40 days after the data scandal peaked, CA and the SCL Group both had to announce the closing of their doors with immediate effect. Neither Cambridge Analytica nor the SCL Group were legally convicted at this point. Once again, history seemed to prove that restoring a damaged reputation – regardless of whether a moral or legal problem arises – is in the best case a long-winded project and in the case of untrue statements and bad crisis management, a thing that often ends with the demise of the company.

Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data used

  • 2014 involvement in midterm elections
  • 2015 presidential campaign Ted Cruz
  • 2016 presidental campaign Donald Trump
  • 2016 Brexit vote
  • 2018 Mexican general election

Read Part I of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica Data Scandal

The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Scandal – Part I

This Article was published first on

Timeline of a reputational disaster

The rise of Facebook seems to be one of the most successful stories ever. What began in 2004 as a platform for Harvard students became popular and conquered the world in a very short period of time. Within 15 years, Facebook has become one of the most powerful corporations in the world, playing a major role in shaping the online environment. Although the company has had to deal with criticism again and again, nothing hit it as hard as the (un)voluntary cooperation with Cambridge Analytica, which is most likely the most famous data scandal the world has ever seen – resulting in an unprecented loss of trust and reputation.

When extensive Wikipedia pages are dedicated to a “breach of trust”, and Google displays 2,690,000 results for this “breach”, it is a safe bet to say that something definitely has gone (very) wrong. And that, perhaps, there was more than just a breach of trust. In this specific case, though, it took almost three years after the first articles were published until the big media scolding and the resulting consequences occurred. Three years in which one would have had the chance to actually prevent reputational damage. This is the story behind the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal and its implications for the reputation of two of the world’s most influential companies.

2013: How it all began

“This is Your Digital Life”is the innocent name of an app which Aleksandr Kogan developed in 2014 at the Cambridge University. An app that was different than others, though. It was designed to vacuum up the data of the people using it. And the data of their friends – including the data which they hadn’t intended to share publicly. Mr. Kogan provided the app to a young British political consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica (CA), which combined data mining, data brokerage and data analysis with strategic communication in electoral processes. The London-based agency had developed a profiling system using online data, such as Facebook interactions and smartphone data. As a political consulting agency, CA mainly focused on voters demographics, consumer behaviour, internet activity and other private and public sources. Cleverly combining strategic advice and new newly acquired technological capability, CA was quickly able to run a Facebook survey that silently aspirated the data of people participating – and their friends. The entire operation was mainly orchestrated and run by two key people: Alexander Nix, Director of the SCL Group – CA’s mother company – and CEO of Cambridge Analytica, and Steve Bannon, vice president of Cambridge Analytica, executive chairman of Breitbart News and former chief strategist of president Donald Trump.

2014 – 2015: Data misuse and first newspaper articles

In 2014, CA actually started harvesting data on Facebook. Data which was used in the 2014 midterm elections in the US and in 2015 for the presidential run of Ted Cruz.While Cambridge Analytica later admitted to collecting 30 million Facebook user profiles, Facebook itself estimated that around 87 million profiles were affected by Mr. Kogans App.

A Bloomberg article reported in November 2015 that CA was hired by the pro-Brexit campaign group Leave.EU, headed by Nigel Farage. As it turned out, Alexander Nix and Nigel Farage were friends, and this operation was done pro bono. It was the first time microtargeting was raised to a public level and used to influence an election campaign.

On 11 December 2015, the Guardian first published an article on Cambridge Analytica and its methods. The journalist Harry Davies was already able to show that the election campaign of the Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz was driven forward by data from Cambridge Analytica. It was also known at the time the data was being collected via an application of Facebook, which led to the first time that Facebook had to take a public position on the issue. Their comment on this article was very general: “[M]isleading people or misusing their information is a direct violation of our policies and we will take swift action against companies that do, including banning those companies from Facebook and requiring them to destroy all improperly collected data,” a Facebook spokesman said. However, nothing in this direction was actually undertaken by Facebook – apparently this simple intervention was enough and no further media outlets caught on to the story at this stage.

2016 – 2017: Ongoing operations

2016 and 2017 was a busy year for the SCL Group and Cambridge Analytica. After the Ted Cruz campaigning team lost against Donald Trump, CA was hired by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 to help them win the national election against Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile in Europe, another firm with close ties to the SCL Group, AggregateIQ, helped the second pro-Brexit group “Vote Leave”.

During that time, media attention lay almost exclusively on the surprising election results and not on CA and its Facebook data. The calmness continued until December 15, 2017, when CA was again mentioned in the media, this time in a Wall Street Journal report, stating that Robert Mueller, the American Special Counsel to investigate potential Russian interference in the US presidential election, had requested files from Cambridge Analytica. Once again, however, this did not get the attention of other media and neither Cambridge Analytica nor the SCL Group nor Facebook had to face any further negative press. This was about to change drastically, though, in early 2018.

Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data used:

  • 2014 involvement in midterm elections
  • 2015 presidential campaign Ted Cruz
  • 2016 presidental campaign Donald Trump
  • 2016 Brexit vote
  • 2018 Mexican general election

Read Part II of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica Data Scandal

Your Right to be Forgotten

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“It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it,” says Warren Buffet. A quote which, thanks to digitalization, is even more true today than it was ever before. But what happens after those critical five minutes when things just don’t go the way they should, or even worse, what if you are negatively portrayed in media without any wrongdoing on your part (think ‘Fake News’)? Will your reputation be tarnished forever, or do you have a right to be forgotten?

The right to be forgotten is a concept that involves the idea of every person having the right to have his or her personal information, which is somehow available on the internet, deleted. The most popular case occurred in Spain in 2014, when Mario Costeja González asked Google to delete links to an old newspaper articles about his bankruptcy. The piece, just 36 words long and dating back from 1998, had a prominent position among Googles’ search result. He argued that the information was outdated and had no legitimacy to still be found. The case was brought to the European Court of Justice. The court ruled that search engines as data controllers are obliged to consider deletion requests if they are justified. The result of this case was, that Google, as soon as facts about it were made public, was overrun with deletion requests. However, this did not solve Mr. Costeja Conzáles problem and in fact, the victory was pyrrhic: While he had concerns about 36 words prior to the court case, 850 articles in the world’s largest media outlets were published the day after the court ruled in favour of him. The famous Streisand effect caught up with him. That was not the only problem, though. In this specific case, only Google Spain was taken to court, which means that the link was still accessible on pages in other languages. Moreover, the right to be forgotten is in direct conflict with the notion of an open web and a free flow of information. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, describes the EU’s right to be forgotten as “deeply immoral”. The biggest critics argue that this so-called right represents a step towards media censorship.

The Basics

The General Data Protection Regulation or in short GDPR, which went into effect in all EU Member States on 25 May 2018, regulates the “right to erasure” in Art. 17. The title of this article contains the addition in brackets “Right to be forgotten”. However, the provision mainly contains rights and obligations to delete certain data. Only Article 17.2 continues with the idea of the right to be forgotten, to prevent or reverse the (further) dissemination of personal data (in particular on the internet), at least to some extent. The regulation reads as follows:

Where the controller has made the personal data public and is obliged pursuant to paragraph 1 to erase the personal data, the controller, taking account of available technology and the cost of implementation, shall take reasonable steps, including technical measures, to inform controllers which are processing the personal data that the data subject has requested the erasure by such controllers of any links to, or copy or replication of, those personal data.

Long story short

To this day, the right to be forgotten is not specifically regulated by law. The data protection laws, which are country-specific, only contain provisions on the conditions under which personal data must be deleted.

From a technical point of view, solutions have not yet been found to guarantee the eradication of outdated or wrong content. X-pire, for example, is a software that allows users to give their pictures an expiration date after which the photo becomes unrecognizable. Yet neither this nor any other program on the market offers complete protection, as copies of the pictures could be made and reposted before the originals are encrypted.

So, what now?

Ultimately, your most promising choice is to reach out to the person who uploaded the content and to apply for deletion on the relevant websites and search engines. This is time-consuming but guarantees the fastest success if your request is justified. Therefore, you firstly try to get in touch and make your case. If you are an organization that is already exposed in media, you need to proceed with caution as an aggressive behaviour from your side can easily backfire. This also hinges on a positive and good reputation that you have already in place. Secondly, if you have credible grounds to be believe that content is defamatory on a personal or corporate level, you can request removal based on reputational damage. Let’s look at these options. For example, the most popular search engine, Google, offers its own pages for deletion requests.

Apply to delete outdated content on Google

This request can only be submitted for pages or images that have already been modified or removed from the Web. Simply enter the URL that you copied from Google search results and request removal. If the request is successful, the cached result and snippet will be removed from Google search results.

Apply to delete other content on Google

On this page, you will find instructions on where to report content that you wish to be removed from Google’s services in accordance with applicable law. This procedure, however, is much more time-consuming than the deletion of outdated content, as Google asks for background information on why they should delete this content. One also needs to bear in mind that transparency is fundamental for Google: Without having legal evidence, deletion requests are often turned down. There are many points to consider for your request to be successful. Is there public interest behind the information? Is the information time-critical? Are public figures involved?

With that being said, even if there are doubts as to whether your application is justified or not, it may be worth making the claim. There are many examples where Google has granted the request for cancellation, although there was no right to do so. Should Google reject the request, a written justification must be provided. If you don’t agree with the justification, you may file a lawsuit against it.

File a lawsuit

The final option, if all claims are rejected, is to go to court. The extent to which this is promising depends on the individual case: Are personal rights violated? Was there a violation of honor? Does the negative content perhaps even concern unfair competition? Is it a public person? Is the offender known or is it a complaint against an unknown person? There are many reasons for and against (not) going to court. But what is already clear in advance: a court case is time-consuming, expensive, and may have to be repeated in different countries until all links, photos and posts disappear.

It may only take five minutes to ruin your reputation – but what happens after these ominous 5 minutes is at least partly in your own hands. Repairing reputational damage can be done, but it is no easy feat. Your best bet is to make sure everything is in place not to provoke negative mentions to start with. Learn more on how Reputation Affairs can support you on that journey and contact me directly.