Ap­ple’s China prob­lem high­lights co­nun­drum for tech­nol­ogy sec­tor

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

Ap­ple’s de­ci­sion to bow to Chi­nese of­fi­cials by re­mov­ing apps to side­step on­line cen­sor­ship un­der­scores the dilemma faced by US tech com­pa­nies seek­ing to up­hold prin­ci­ples while ex­pand­ing their busi­ness. The iPhone maker is the lat­est from Sil­i­con Val­ley to face a co­nun­drum in balancing their value for hu­man rights and free ex­pres­sion against a gov­ern­ment in­tent on con­trol­ling on­line con­tent. Ap­ple this week ac­knowl­edged it had re­moved ap­pli­ca­tions for so-called VPNs or vir­tual pri­vate net­works, de­spite ob­jec­tions.

“We would rather not re­move the apps, but like in other coun­tries, we obey the laws where we do busi­ness,” Ap­ple chief Tim Cook said dur­ing an earn­ings call. “We are hope­ful that over time, the re­stric­tions we are see­ing are loos­ened, be­cause in­no­va­tion re­ally re­quires free­dom to col­lab­o­rate and com­mu­ni­cate, and I know that is a ma­jor fo­cus there.” The prospect of Ap­ple scor­ing a hit with a 10th-an­niver­sary iPhone model in the months ahead ap­peared to out­weigh back­lash from on­line rights ac­tivists who crit­i­cized the world’s most valu­able tech­nol­ogy com­pany for not stand­ing up for on­line free­dom.

“There is a be­lief that mil­len­nial re­ally want com­pa­nies to be more ac­tive in pro­tect­ing peo­ple’s rights and free speech,” Sil­i­con Val­ley an­a­lyst Rob En­derle of En­derle Group said. “There is ob­vi­ously no con­nec­tion be­tween the rhetoric and buy­ing be­hav­ior at this point.” Chi­nese in­ter­net users have for years sought to get around the so-called “Great Fire­wall” re­stric­tions, in­clud­ing blocks on Face­book and Twit­ter, by us­ing for­eign VPN ser­vices.

“If other com­pa­nies fol­low Ap­ple’s lead, it could soon be much harder for peo­ple in China to ac­cess in­for­ma­tion freely on­line,” Amnesty In­ter­na­tional said in a blog post. “Busi­nesses have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­spect in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights law. We would have ex­pected a more ro­bust stance from Ap­ple, a com­pany that prides it­self on be­ing a pri­vacy cham­pion.”

Un­der pres­sure

Cook main­tained that the App Store in China re­mained stocked with VPN apps, in­clud­ing cre­ations from devel­op­ers out­side that coun­try. A com­mer­cial VPN se­curely re­lays in­ter­net com­mu­ni­ca­tions through a pri­vate chan­nel, hid­ing it from lo­cals net­works and, po­ten­tially, cen­sors. “This wasn’t a choice they re­ally wanted to make, and I’m not sure what they could have done about it,” an­a­lyst En­derle said of Ap­ple. “They are not do­ing well in China, and ticking off the lead­ers would cer­tainly not help.”

Ap­ple and Chi­nese cen­sors will ul­ti­mately “face a bar­rage of pres­sures” from each other and from tech­nol­ogy users in China, US-based in­ter­net rights group Elec­tronic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion (EFF) said in an on­line post. “If Ap­ple makes too great a stand against China’s laws, it could be thrown out of the coun­try,” Eva Galperin and Amul Kalia of the EFF said in post. “But if China pushes its cen­sor­ship sys­tem too hard, it will have to face the grow­ing frus­tra­tions of its own elite.” They rea­soned that there was hope the crack­down on VPNs in China would re­cede when the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate there im­proves.

An­droid up­side?

There is a his­tory of US in­ter­net stars be­ing hum­bled in China. Ya­hoo a decade ago wound up hav­ing to make amends after go­ing along with Chi­nese of­fi­cials de­mand­ing help some iden­ti­fy­ing prodemoc­racy ad­vo­cates who used Ya­hoo on­line mes­sage boards. Mi­crosoft has been do­ing busi­ness in China for some 20 years, stay­ing within guide­lines set by the gov­ern­ment. Seven years ago, Google pulled its search en­gine out of main­land China in a rare stand against cen­sors and for in­ter­net pri­vacy.

“Google stood up and left, and now they aren’t a power in China,” En­derle said of the cost of the move. How­ever, the re­moval of VPN ap­pli­ca­tions in China by Ap­ple could ramp up the pop­u­lar­ity of iPhone ri­vals pow­ered by Google-backed An­droid soft­ware that lets peo­ple get apps from un­of­fi­cial mar­ket­places. Ap­ple’s busi­ness model which re­quires users to in­stall only ap­proved ap­pli­ca­tions, iron­i­cally, makes it eas­ier for a regime like China to ex­ert con­trol, an­a­lysts point out. Galperin and Kalia of the EFF said the Ap­ple pol­icy “cre­ates a sin­gle choke­point for free ex­pres­sion and pri­vacy.”—AFP

BEI­JING: Peo­ple walk past an Ap­ple store in Bei­jing.—AFP

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