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Wednesday, 3 July, 2002, 11:36 GMT 12:36 UK
'Ethical' ISP tainted by WorldCom

One of the unsung victims of the WorldCom scandal is Christian Aid, which had used the company to set up an "ethical" internet service provider. The episode has raised some difficult questions for the charity.
Fish.co.uk has tried to be different from other internet service providers.

It is not in the business of trying to sell its users CDs, or of flashing banner adverts promising astrology, porn, or casinos.
Afghan town of Kol after earthquake
Disaster relief is a constant task for Christian Aid and other charities

It had two major aims - firstly to raise money to help Christian Aid's work in disaster relief and development programmes, and secondly to build a community of like-minded supporters who were attracted to an "ethical" ISP.

And it's had a fair degree of success - winning up to 22,000 regular customers in its first 15 months, each of whom know a proportion of their internet dial-up charge is going to the charity. In April 6,500 profit went back into Christian Aid funds.


This whole thing illustrates the problems in getting any kind of sponsorship deal for anything when you are charity like Christian Aid

Charity insider

But disaster struck last week. The telecom company Fish.co.uk picked to connect its customers to the internet was none other than WorldCom. WorldCom is also the "headline sponsor", giving it the right to have its logo on the masthead alongside Christian Aid's.

For the honour of such an endorsement, Christian Aid had ensured that WorldCom has passed its "ethical screening process", checking it was not involved in activities such as gambling or pornography.

Yet last week it was discovered that WorldCom had indulged in improper accounting to the tune of $3.8bn, wrongly telling investors it was making millions in profit. Thousands of people could lose their jobs as a result, investors have been conned, pension funds around the world will be hit. Hardly, many people would say, the actions of an ethical company.

Bernie Ebbers
Hands together: Bernie Ebbers only spotted at church since scandal
The company hit the big time under the flamboyant former chief executive Bernie Ebbers, himself a high-profile church-goer who is famed for still teaching at a Sunday school in his home town of Jackson, Mississippi.

So for Christian Aid there are two problems. Firstly the uncertainty of what will happen. It is contractually bound to WorldCom as a supplier and as a sponsor for another nine months.

Screen grab
The links with WorldCom are clearly labelled
The charity remains confident that it will not be in the position where it has to close its Fish. But a spokesman told BBC News Online: "We are talking to our lawyers about what we can do to protect these assets, and about matters relating to the sponsorship deal."

It is understood that the charity is owed money for the sponsorship, and in fact had been before WorldCom's trouble was known publicly.

But there is also the more difficult issue of having dealt with a company which did not actually meet the ethical standards expected of it.

Fish users have been pointing out the moral dilemmas on the site's discussion boards. One, Stuart Wilkinson, wrote: "Fish is a wonderful, ethically-orientated service, and I am a big fan. WorldCom appear to be (based on recent media publicity) morally bankrupt... WorldCom is the company that powers the Fish service. Do we have a problem?"


The situation creates interesting questions about how ethical companies interact with the world

Fish customer
A Christian Aid insider said: "This whole thing illustrates the problems in getting any kind of sponsorship deal for anything when you are a charity like Christian Aid."

The charity itself says it would be unfair to hold it responsible for not having foreseen the scandal, as many other people better placed had not predicted it either.

"I see absolutely no fault in the way Christian Aid/Fish has, and continues, to act," wrote one of the site's users, "but the situation creates interesting questions about how ethical companies interact with the world." It seems many are content to chalk this up as another bruising encounter between God and Mammon.

WorldCom

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