02 August 2017

The New York Times: “Apple’s Silence in China Sets a Dangerous Precedent”

Search Apple’s website for a letter from Mr. Cook issuing a public rebuke of China’s intrusion into his customers’ privacy and freedom of expression — you won’t find it. The company has not fully tested its political and economic leverage in China. It hasn’t tested the public’s immense love of its products. It hasn’t publicly threatened any long-term consequences — like looking to other parts of the world to manufacture its products.

The company’s silence may be tactical; the Chinese government, the conventional thinking goes, does not take well to public rebuke. Yet Apple’s quiet capitulation to tightening censorship in one of its largest markets is still a dangerous precedent.

Farhad Manjoo

What a different Apple than the company that last year took a stance against government intrusion by refusing to break iOS encryption at the request of the FBI. I for one think the explanation is simple enough: back then, Apple figured there was little cost to resisting the US government, that they will eventually back down, while the public image benefit would be high, especially considering their armies of fans in the US, ready to defend their every decision.

Apple Store in China
Apple has agreed to remove VPN apps from its Chinese app store. European Pressphoto Agency

China though is a different matter. A ban on Apple products, or blocking its services, would have hurt, even with a declining market share. Worse still, as some people quickly noticed, Apple’s manufacturing is almost entirely dependent on China; their partners are also receiving substantial subsidies from local authorities to keep investing in the region. Unfavorable changes to these preferential deals would have immediately impacted Apple’s margins – and we can’t have that, can we? It would be interesting to see what happens in case the Trump administration starts cracking down on privacy or freedom of speech, though I doubt Apple will mount any kind of resistance.

This can at least serve as a solid reminder not to rely on corporations to defend human rights; they will always defend their own interests first.

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