Don’t Think Different

A victory for censorship without a fight.

Apple’s stock is hitting new highs amid growing expectations for a new model iPhone and resurgent sales of Macs and iPads. But if the company’s financial foundations are stronger than ever, its ethical underpinnings are not.

Apple has just agreed to remove from its App Store in China several VPN apps that allow users to circumvent the Great Firewall of China and to gain access to content that Beijing’s Communist Party bosses don’t want them to see. “Whatever Apple may have done in private to fight the Chinese internet law, the company has not offered a peep of criticism in public,” noted Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times. “Apple’s only public statement on the VPN ban said that the company had been ‘required to remove some VPN apps in China that do not meet the new regulations,’ but noted that the ‘apps remain available in all other markets where they do business.’”

Apple is hardly alone in kowtowing to Chinese demands. Other U.S. tech companies have done the same thing. Amazon, for example, has just taken down VPN apps from its Amazon Web Services cloud-computing platform in China.

But Apple’s hypocrisy is more blatant than most given how adamantly it resisted FBI demands a year ago to provide “back-door” access to the locked iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists.  Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, denounced the FBI demand as “chilling” and resisted it in the courts. The FBI ultimately had to withdraw its request and pay professional hackers $900,000 to crack the cell phone.

While refusing to comply with a legitimate demand from the U.S. government for help in fighting terrorism, then, Apple is willing to cave in to unreasonable demands from the Chinese government to help it censor its own population. No doubt Apple will argue that it had no choice if it wants to keep access to the Chinese market, which it sees as a major growth area.

But Apple also has leverage over China, where it manufactures a great deal of the technology that goes into its iPhones and other products; it could threaten to move those manufacturing facilities to other countries, such as India, which show greater respect for the rule of law.

Perhaps Apple made a major push behind the scenes and lost, but so far nothing has leaked out to suggest that the company fought as hard as it should have against such noxious demands. Their surrender to the Chinese will have a ripple effect. Russia is now following China’s lead in demanding the removal of VPNs to bolster its censorship efforts.

It is possible to make a different calculation. Google did so in 2010 when it shut down its Chinese search engine rather than comply with government demands to limit the available information to its users in China. Google moved its operations to Hong Kong, where there is still greater freedom of speech than there is on the mainland. Now, Google is moving to reenter the Chinese market; it remains to be seen whether and to what extent it will censor search results to comply with Beijing’s edicts.

It’s a shame that Google dropped its “Don’t be evil” mantra because that’s actually a pretty good slogan for companies to keep in mind when making these difficult decisions. What Apple did is not exactly evil, but it is amoral. One would hope that the world’s most valuable company, with a market cap ($880 billion) greater than the GDP of 195 out of the world’s 211 countries, might have the luxury of allowing ethical considerations to play a slightly greater role in its decision-making. But apparently not.