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Do corporations have to obey the law?

Summary:
That’s a silly question, we know, for of course corporations have to obey the law. Say, just to imagine, that Facebook had illegally intervened in the Brexit referendum, or an election campaign here, then of course we would be righteous in insisting that they should obey the law here. That’s what national sovereignty means, that whatever we decide the law, here, should be has to be obeyed by those who are or who operate here.Except people then go on to insist that actually, corporations should not obey the law:Apple and Google shut down a voting app meant to help opposition parties organize against the Kremlin in a parliamentary election in Russia that’s taking place over the weekend. The companies removed the app from their app stores on Friday after the Russian government accused them of

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That’s a silly question, we know, for of course corporations have to obey the law. Say, just to imagine, that Facebook had illegally intervened in the Brexit referendum, or an election campaign here, then of course we would be righteous in insisting that they should obey the law here. That’s what national sovereignty means, that whatever we decide the law, here, should be has to be obeyed by those who are or who operate here.

Except people then go on to insist that actually, corporations should not obey the law:

Apple and Google shut down a voting app meant to help opposition parties organize against the Kremlin in a parliamentary election in Russia that’s taking place over the weekend. The companies removed the app from their app stores on Friday after the Russian government accused them of interfering in the country’s internal affairs, a clear attempt by President Vladimir Putin to obstruct free elections and stay in power.

We’d not argue with much of that. But it’s what comes next that matters:

In a bid to clamp down on the opposition effort, the Russian government told Google and Apple that the app was illegal

Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, legality can be a shifting concept in some places. But this?

Critics say the episode serves as an example of why Apple, specifically, can’t be trusted to protect people’s civil liberties and resist government pressure.

But this is the point. Are we to insist that corporations obey the law or not? Or is there some special set of laws that they don’t have to obey - possibly some set in foreign places - and some other set they do - like those where we reside?

That we don’t like some laws that J. Foreigner sets up is fine, even honourable. We might also say that some sets of laws are so appalling that no one need feel bound to obey any other them. No one’s going to be too upset about a corporation bruising one or more North Korean laws after all.

But we do enter a terrible minefield when we insist that corporations should ignore some laws and not others, in foreign places, because of what we think about them here at home. It’s time to make up minds. Should Apple break Russian law or not? And if so, then which of our own are equally ripe to be ignored? Facebook and elections perhaps?

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Tim Worstall
Tim Worstall is a British-born writer and Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Worstall is a regular contributor to Forbes and the Register. He has also written for the Guardian, the New York Times, PandoDaily, the Daily Telegraph blogs, the Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010 his blog was listed as one of the top 100 UK political blogs by Total Politics.

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