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Ron Judd, an Olympics junkie and Seattle Times columnist who has covered Olympic sports since 1997, will use this space to serve up news and opinion on the Summer and Winter Games -- also inviting you to chime in on Planet Earth's biggest get-together.

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April 24, 2008 5:00 PM

Is there a nest of "moral cowards" at Microsoft?

Posted by Ron Judd

OK, now it's getting serious.

An activist group, Dream for Darfur, is officially targeting Olympic sponsors, including Microsoft, for snuggling up to China, saying they've failed to do their part to end fighting in Sudan.

Dream for Darfur names 16 companies, including General Electric, Coca-Cola and Microsoft, accusing all of "moral cowardice" for pumping money into the Beijing 2008 Games with little regard for China's role in the ongoing conflict in Darfur. China is a major investor in Sudan, and buys most of Sudan's exported oil. The country is oft-criticized for failing to use its economic influence to curtail bloodshed in western Darfur, where the United Nations estimates that more than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced.

Dream for Darfur is the group headed by actress Mia Farrow, giving it media clout it otherwise likely wouldn't possess. It released a 100-page study that Farrow told the Associated Press is a "report card grading the companies' responsibility on humanity and on the ability to think outside the box on profitability, and to open minds to social responsibility."

The report, which examined all corporate sponsors of the International Olympic Committee and the Beijing Games themselves, says Eastman Kodak, Adidas and McDonalds have take adequate action, and won't be targeted. Kodak and Adidas, for example, earned "B's" on the report card because they wrote to the UN about Darfur.

Microsoft earned a "D-minus," placing it in a group with Johnson & Johnson, Lenovo Corp., Samsung and Visa -- companies that responded to group queries, but have failed to take what the group considers adequate action. Earning big, fat "F's" were corporate sponsors that failed to even respond to the group, including Staples, Anheuser-Busch, mining company BHP Billiton Ltd., Volkswagen and UPS.

All the companies, Dream for Darfur alleges, are "silently complicit in the Darfur genocide, thereby tarnishing the 2008 Beijing Olympics and their own sponsorships by their association with China's role in the ultimate crime against humanity." (A footnote to that statement says the group considers sponsors to be "secondarily complicit.")

The group vowed to protest corporate headquarters and urge a television boycott of the Games in August. Demonstrations are planned at "F" earning companies: Coca-Cola HQ in Atlanta and in New York on Sunday, at Staples, Inc. in Boston on Sunday, the AP reports.

No word on protests of Microsoft. In the group's report, it concedes that two Microsoft executives met personally with Farrow in Redmond to address the issue. Subsequently, Microsoft, in a letter, detailed its many contributions to humanitarian relief efforts through the UN and other means, and ensured the group that the company's top leadership, including its board of directors, had carefully considered Microsoft's role in the Olympics.

In a separate, public statement issued last month, in the wake of the query, Microsoft noted that it sees the Olympics as a means to "transform global relationships, create unity and accelerate positive change in the world," and respects the IOC's decision to choose China as a host. The company notes that its role as a sponsor is as a software supplier and distributor of licensed Olympics coverage through its partnership with NBC. And then it states:

"Like people all around the world, we are shocked and horrified by the violence and human rights violations in Darfur. We commend Dream for Darfur and other organizations for their leadership in casting a spotlight on this atrocity and the need for immediate international resolution. Governments and international organizations -- the United Nations chief among them -- as well as humanitarian relief organizations -- will need to continue to work together locally and globally to address the problems in Sudan. Microsoft will continue to support these organizations in their mission through technology assistance and other resources."

That statement was branded "corporate doublespeak" in the report by Farrow's group -- apparently because it did not mention the Chinese role in Sudan specifically -- even though Microsoft was the only corporation to issue a public statement in response to questions about Darfur.

"While we appreciate the effort," Farrow's group says, "the resulting verbiage is a case study in playing it safe."

The group seemed careful to distinguish humanitarian work by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation -- which, it notes, contributed $5.3 million to refugee aid in Darfur and Chad -- from the company's separate corporate sponsorships.

"We continue to hope that Microsoft, because of its significant dealings with China and also because of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's interest in humanitarian issues, may yet emerge in a leadership role on this issue," the report states. "To date, however, Microsoft has done little."

Our take: Corporate boycott attempts may prove an effective tool for groups like Farrow's, whose cause is a just one. Good for her. Bring out the picket signs. But -- at the risk of sounding like a homer here -- let's get real. Does it not seem disingenuous to apply the "complicit" brand to a company like Microsoft, which not only sounds like it's on this groups side, but has been a relative model global citizen compared to other corporations on this group's hit list?

That's especially true when one considers the unparalleled work of the Gates Foundation, which is doing more, day to day, on a down-in-the-dirt level, to aid the world's neediest citizens than a thousand Mia Farrows could do in a lifetime.

Her group, to its credit, posts full responses from all the companies, including Microsoft, in its report. But little of that response -- and none from the Redmond company -- made it into wire-story summaries we've seen.

It illustrates the danger -- and potential irresponsibility -- of simplistic, "letter-grade" branding of corporations for their role in affairs as complex as these. Taking a public-relations sledgehammer to a major corporation that has the stones to publicly endorse your mission might turn the heads of those who fail to read the fine print. But it's not a very good way to effect change.

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