The tech giant’s questionable business practices in China “makes it difficult to take them seriously on domestic social issues,” one expert tells TheWrap
Apple has positioned itself as Big Tech’s moral compass the last few years, at least based on high-profile advertising campaigns and the public comments of CEO Tim Cook. “I think we have a moral responsibility to help grow the economy, to help grow jobs, to contribute to this country and to contribute to the other countries that we do business in,” Cook said in 2017.
Don’t buy it, a growing band of critics are saying.
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To do big business in China, “you’re going to have to kowtow” to the Communist-led regime there, explained Matt Bilinksy, a tech and media-focused attorney at Weinberg Gonser LLP in Los Angeles. “There’s no room for compromise. To access that market, you’re playing by the rules of the Chinese Communist Party, and there’s zero space to deviate.”
Apple’s commitment to “moral responsibility” drew a harsh spotlight after The New York Times reported that Cook approved “aggressively” censoring apps that China’s communist government disapproved of. The report also said the company has been storing the personal data of its Chinese customers on computer servers run by a government-owned Chinese firm.
That’s a concerning arrangement. This is the same government that, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, has increasingly cracked down on free expression and has rounded up Muslim citizens and thrown them into concentration camps. As the Times reported, “in its data centers, Apple’s compromises have made it nearly impossible for the company to stop the Chinese government from gaining access to the emails, photos, documents, contacts and locations of millions of Chinese residents.”
Apple did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment. A company rep, in a statement to the Times, said “we have never compromised the security of our users or their data in China or anywhere we operate.”
That sounds incongruous in a country like China, where the government can compel any company or firm to hand over information. Apple’s famous “Think Different” slogan clearly doesn’t seem to mesh with Xi’s China.
“That [report] really undercuts their moral authority around privacy, because when you think of China, you don’t think of consumer privacy,” tech ethicist David Ryan Polgar told TheWrap.
The Times’ report highlighted the steep social cost of doing business in China. From Apple’s standpoint — and the standpoint of its shareholders — it’s easy to see why compromises are necessary: it’s a massive market. China has 1.4 billion citizens, more than four times as many as the U.S. And business has been especially good lately, with Apple reporting $17.7 billion in Greater China revenue last quarter, up 87.5% from the same time a year ago.
“There’s certainly tension between the prioritization of profit motive and the supposed business ethics and social good [Apple espouses],” Bilinksy said. The Times report, he said, “is pretty difficult to square with the company’s claims of prioritizing, or at least being cognizant of, social good.”
Apple is not the only American company to face backlash for attempting to appease China. John Cena’s apology this week for the “crime” of calling Taiwan a country, while promoting the release of the big-budget NBCUniversal film “F9,” makes that obvious. His comments sparked an “uproar,” according to ABC News, among Chinese nationalists online, but the movie has still performed well at the box office in the country.
Still, this is Apple. This is the good tech giant. Apple, after all, hasn’t been shy about trolling Facebook for its own data privacy issues. Apple even paid for a giant billboard at CES electronics trade show in Las Vegas in 2019, saying, “What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.”
While that may not apply in Beijing, the ad fit perfectly with Apple’s well-crafted image in the U.S., where it’s taken several ethical stances in the last few years. In 2018, Cook urged tech companies to do a better job policing “hate speech,” and more recently, he denounced new voter laws in Georgia. Even this month, Apple fired a recently-hired ad executive after employees complained about, what they said, were “overtly racist and sexist” passages in a book he wrote.
In short this isn’t a company that’s been afraid to take a stand. But its business practices in China undermine Cook’s “moral responsibility” claims and call into question how important social issues really are to the company.
“What’s tricky is, from a public perspective, it’s hard to know what’s a genuine concern versus what’s posturing with Apple,” Polgar said.
Bilinsky felt the same way. “It makes it difficult to take them seriously on domestic social issues when they’re advocating for these positions in the names of generosity, tolerance or other lofty principles, and then seem to throw those out the window as soon as they have to actually deal with getting their product made or sold in the largest expanding foreign market,” he said.
Ultimately, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Apple reached its $2.1 trillion market cap by focusing on products, and there are plenty of iPhones and Macs to be sold overseas. But the next time Apple takes a stance on domestic social issue, it’s worth remembering the company has chosen to “think differently” about its moral responsibilities in China.