op-ed

Big Companies Throw Ethics Out The Door When It Comes To China

Later this month, Apple CEO Tim Cook will co-chair something called the China Development Forum, sponsored by Communist Chinese government. It was only in December that Cook keynoted the World Internet Conference, another Chinese government event held to promote a more censored Internet.

Apple’s relationship with Beijing now looks more like a partnership. On February 28, Apple transferred operation of its iCloud data center in mainland China to a state-owned enterprise called Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD).

Apple will continue to market its iCloud services in China and will take care of the billing, but its new partner will possess and manage all the data. Everything that any Apple customer in China puts up to iCloud, which often means anything that is stored on their devices, will be under the ultimate control of their government.

Cook asserts, “There is no point in yelling at China.” But Cook has famously yelled at President Trump on issues like immigration and climate change, invoking the most lofty and righteous ideals. So far, however, the gangsters who run China have been spared Cook’s sanctimoniousness.

Cook may say he hopes that China will evolve into a more open society, but recent reports suggest the opposite is occurring. President Xi styles himself as a leader on par with Mao. Xi’s political supremacy was confirmed at last year’s Party Congress amid indications that he would like to rule for the rest of his life. Xi advocates a tighter grip on Chinese society by the Communist Party. This time they won’t have to use tanks.

Last summer, Apple removed VPN apps from its China store. VPN stands for Virtual Private Networks, which when accessed through an app, allow Internet users in China to circumvent government censorship.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology sought to fill the cracks in the country’s “Great Firewall” by requiring a license for VPN services. Licenses were not, of course, granted to Western firms that assist Chinese in reaching forbidden websites like the New York Times, Facebook and Twitter. Currently, China blocks access to over 100 of the world’s top 1,000 websites.

Apple put out a statement saying it was “required” to comply.  Cook said, “We believe in engaging with governments even when we disagree.” Of course, Apple was not required to do anything. It had to comply only if it was more worried about its business in China than in freedom of speech.

So far, Silicon Valley has gotten a free pass on China, made possible by the widespread belief that technology can only undermine authoritarians. As technology advances even further, however, that belief may be wrong.

The systems that undergird the web are increasingly centralized and powerful. Connections to the web, especially through mobile devices, are central to the lives of more and more people, allowing for the microsecond-by-microsecond collection of data on every aspect of their lives, including physical location. While the individual is empowered and convenienced in many ways, it is the totalitarian’s dreams that are being realized.

Consider that facial recognition systems are being widely deployed in China where the government maintains 176 million surveillance cameras. The Ministry of Public Security is building a facial database of the country’s 1.3 billion people. In some public restrooms, visitors must show their face to a machine that records how many sheets of toilet paper they use. The government is also compiling electronic “social profiles” on individuals so their loyalty can be quantified, and social services provided or denied.

When your company has both the most admired brand and biggest market capitalization in the world, a certain level of ethical responsibility is expected. Cook has so far rejected that responsibility. When China’s digital dictatorship is complete, and the last vestiges of freedom are gone, Western firms will have to abandon China and Cook will have to admit to the tragedy of it all.

Peter Flaherty is president of the National Legal and Policy Center.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.