Apple's Chinese VPN Ban is Shameful - and Tim Cook Should Know It

By James O Malley on at

It’s 2017 and democracy is in the balance. Around the world there is a terrifying trend away from freedom and towards authoritarianism - from Venezuela, to the United States and to Russia. And today, Apple, has decided to step up its cooperation with the authoritarians.

In China, it has given into to government pressure and has opted to remove around 60 VPN apps from the iOS app store.

VPNs - or Virtual Private Networks - are clever software tools that trick your device - whether a computer, or a phone, or whatever - into thinking that it is in a different country. This serves two purposes: firstly, it encrypts your communications so that your browsing can’t be spied upon by government snoopers. And secondly, it helps get around blocks on content imposed by government censors.

There are plenty of “legitimate” uses of VPN technology. Big companies use the tech to add an extra layer of security to their communications, for example. But it’s also obvious to see what the appeal is in China: they can be used to get around the government blocking material about, say, the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, in which somewhere between 180 and 2,600 pro-democracy demonstrators were killed.

And the incentives for the Chinese government are also pretty clear: it has 1.2bn people to control, and it is utterly terrified of any popular uprisings that may seek to dethrone the ruling regime. Unlike in a democracy, there is no relief valve to let out the pressure, nor any mechanism for an orderly transition of power: if the government is ever removed, it could be literally fatal to the people currently in power. Modern technology potentially makes this even worse too: next time there is a lone protester bravely standing in the path of an oncoming tank, there could be 10,000 smartphones filming and live streaming the moment.

Blocking VPNs gives the government more power to surveil, more power to restrict and a better chance of continued survival.

Rotten Apple

So why did Apple remove the VPN software? The company has, of course, said that it is doing it to comply with local laws. This is true - but it is also an indication that Apple has decided to do what every western tech company operating in China has to do: it has made a deal with the devil.

The commercial incentives are clear: China is now arguably Apple’s biggest market. It sells more iPhones in China than it does in America. The overwhelming majority of Apple’s products are churned out in Chinese factories (via third party manufacturers like Foxconn). Simply put: if Apple plays ball with the totalitarian Chinese government, it can work out very lucratively for its shareholders.

To make matters worse, there’s also an opportunity cost to Apple and companies like it not operating in China, as it creates a vacuum for a domestic competitor to enter the market and grow to be massive, with no threat from the Silicon Valley outsider. For example, Xiaomi and OnePlus are both hugely popular in China - and are both now competing with Apple in the west too.

Yep - that bitter taste in your mouth is the realisation that there is more to life than the bottom line; that things like human rights and freedom of expression are important too, but are not fully captured by the profit motive.

Don’t get me wrong - Apple aren’t uniquely bad in this respect. Every massive company that wants to operate in China must jump through the same hoops and play by the same rules. Microsoft has previously censored Chinese bloggers on behalf of the government. Google used to censor search results in the country, before it pulled out. And so on.

How Do You Like Them Apples?

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be global capitalism selling out to the whims of totalitarian regimes. I think Apple should be brave, and stand up to the Chinese government - for the sake of their souls and the sorts of democratic values they would usually pretend to have in press releases aimed at western audiences. And you know who might agree with me? Umm, CEO Tim Cook.

In 2015, Cook gave a graduation commencement speech in which he spoke about the importance of values in the workplace. After talking about John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, he said this killer line:

“It’s about finding your values, and committing to them. It’s about finding your North Star. It’s about making choices. Some are easy. Some are hard. And some will make you question everything.”

He went on to add that, “At Apple, we believe that work is not about improving your own self. It’s about improving others’ lives as well.”

So why don’t the lives of Chinese people matter? Why should Apple be complicit in the oppression of freedom of thought and expression in China?

What Cook appears to be forgetting is that though China is a huge market, Apple too is a world power. It is literally the biggest company in the world by market value. It has a massively outsized cultural and political impact. It has more economic weight to throw around than many medium-sized countries.

Imagine if Apple refused to comply with China’s request. The government could conceivably prevent Apple from operating in China, but would it? Would the Chinese government really want to throw away all of the cash that Apple brings in, and make thousands of people unemployed? Would it really want to face the wrath of middle class Chinese consumers, who would be furious that they can’t buy the latest iPhone?

Perhaps it would - but it wouldn’t be a painless process for China’s government either. And Apple has stood its ground with China before, so there is proof that it can do it.

In the aforementioned speech, Cook even spoke of the role that iPhones can play in achieving social justice. “People who witness injustice and want to expose it — and now they can, because they have a camera in their pocket all the time”, he said. Though of course, without a VPN to suitably anonymise you, you’d have to be a pretty brave person to expose injustice in a regime where the Chinese government tightly monitors internet traffic.

The speech is actually pretty remarkable, as almost every quote is damning in the context of the VPN decision.

“You don’t have to choose between doing good and doing well. It’s a false choice, today more than ever. Your challenge is to find work that pays the rent, puts food on the table, and lets you do what is right and good and just.”

C’mon Tim, you said it yourself: you don’t need to choose between doing good and doing well. So why are you choosing to do something so shameful?