I continue my exploration of the use of social media in doing compliance by taking a look at a very innovative social media solution to a difficult compliance issue around, of all things, honey. This example shows how creative thinking by a lawyer, in the field of import compliance, led to the development of a software application, using some of the concepts that I discussed earlier in the week around social media. Once again demonstrating the maxim that lawyers (and compliance practitioners) are only limited by their imagination, the use of this software tool demonstrates the power of what social media can bring to your compliance program.
This innovation contrasts with a reader’s comment earlier this week when I began my series on the use of social media in doing compliance. The comment was that this reader’s company, while actively using social media to reach, communicate with and receive information back from its customer base; did not allow employees to access Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat and a whole host of other social media sites on company purchased computers. While the company’s stated reason was security, the true reason is that they simply did not trust their employees not to “waste time” by accessing such sites during work hours.
Such corporate attitudes, while clearly from the time of the dinosaurs, unfortunately still exist. Companies need to understand that social media is a tool which can and should be used affirmatively. Like any tool, it can be abused but if you cannot trust your employees not to goof off (1) they probably should not be your employees and (2) the company is a lousy manager; so there is lots of opportunity for growth. It reminds of when I was working for a corporation back in 2004 and they did not want employees to have company issued cell phones, because you know they might use them for personal use. The bottom line is that social media is here to stay. Millennials and others are only going to communicate through that medium so if companies want to stay relevant, not only with products and services but also with their employee base, they need to understand that social media is an important and significant tool of the future. But enough of my mini-Howard Sklar rant.
Gar Hurst, a partner in the law firm of Givens and Johnston PLLC in Houston, faced an issue around US anti-dumping laws for honey that originated in China. The US Government applies anti-dumping trade sanctions to goods from a particular country. They do this when a domestic interest group alleges and proves, at least theoretically, that the producers in a foreign country are selling their goods into the US market at below fair-market value. By doing this, they are harming the US domestic industry. The dumping duties, which can result from this, can easily be 100, 200, even up to 500 % of import duties. To get around the anti-dumping laws, importers would ship Chinese originated honey to Indonesia, Vietnam or some other country and pass it off as originating from one of those locations.
The problem that Hurst’s client faced was how to prove the honey did not originate from China. In an interview, Hurst said, “We were working with a Southeast Asian honey producer. They were in this situation where Customs was essentially treating them as though they were a Chinese producer. We’ve provided them documents. We’ve provided them invoices. We’ve provided them production docs. We’ve provided them all sorts of documents but there was nothing that we could give them documentary that they didn’t believed could be fake. That was the problem, documents on their face are just a form of testimonial evidence. Meaning, somebody somewhere said, this stuff is actually from the Philippines. It’s only as good as the word of the person who wrote it on. We needed something that would get beyond that problem.”
So using awareness around communications through a smart phone, Hurst and his team came up with an idea “that with the explosion of smartphone technology which is in the hands of basically everybody in the United States and soon to be everyone in the world, these devices basically allow a person to take a picture that is geo-tagged and time and date stamped and then upload that picture to a database in the cloud. Effectively, that’s what we did.” As Hurst explained the process which they came up it was amazingly simply, “We basically created an app that resided on Android phone that they could then go around and document the collection of all these various barrels of honey and its processing. Every time they take a picture, it would be time and date stamped with geo-tagging as well. You know when and where a picture of a particular barrel of honey which we would label with some special labels so you could identify it when and where that was taken.” The product they came up with is called CoVouch.
From there the information is uploaded into a secure database that Hurst and his team created in the cloud. His firm then took all of the evidence they had documented that the honey originated in Indonesia, not China, and presented it to the US Customs service to show his client had not sourced its honey in China. In version 2.0 Hurst and his development team are creating a searchable database which US Customs can use to make spot checks and other determinations.
Recognizing the level of technical sophistication of honey farmers in Asia, CoVouch is amazingly simply to use. It takes pictures, puts time stamps on them and puts geo-tags that show the location where the picture was taken and with glued or pasted on bar codes, you can trace the shipment of honey throughout its journey. But it does so in a way that tells a story. Hurst said, “you’re telling the story but the provenance, if you will, of one imported barrel of honey and how did it get to where it’s at. It’s different. Yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do and trying to do it in a way that is easy enough so that, as you put it, a fairly, uneducated farmer in Indonesia can do it and a busy Customs agent in the United States can review it.”
Such a software system uses the concepts around social media to make a honey farmer a provider of documents evidence, through photographs, to meet US anti-dumping laws. But I see the application as a much broader tool that could be used by anyone who needs to verify information on delivery, delivery amounts, delivery times and delivery locations. This could be a field hand who is delivering chemicals even West Africa and does not know how to speak English. Hurst pointed to uses around whether something might be eligible for special import or export regulations due to NAFTA, whether restricted trade goods, such as those used in the oilfield industry, worked their way into Iran and even applicability under the Buy American Act around the US content in goods.
For the anti-corruption compliance practitioner, you could use such a tool to not only receive information, and more importantly photographic evidence, but you could also deliver information. But the key is that you are only limited by your imagination. CoVouch could be a tool that you use internally for delivery of information and receipt of information inside your company.
Tomorrow I will end my weeklong exploration of the use of social media in your compliance program by discussing some of the more common social media applications and how you might use them.
Once again please remember that I am compiling a list of questions that you would like to be explored or answered on the use of social media in your compliance program. So if you have any questions email them to me, at email@example.com, and I will answer them within the next couple of weeks in my next Mailbag Episode on my podcast, the FCPA Compliance and Ethics Report.
To check out the CoVouch website, click here.
To listen to my podcast with Gar Hurst, go to the FCPA Compliance and Ethics Report, Episode 181, by clicking here.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2015