Hong Kong Maps AppSource: Nathan Tsui

Last week, the world was gripped by the killing of George Floyd, and protests erupted around the world against police brutality and racism. Like everyone else, Apple stepped forward dutifully to offer words of support.

In fact, Apple stepped forward in ways that many other companies have failed to do, going beyond nice tweets and affirming words to real action. Apple re-programmed its Apple Music content for an entire day in support of #blackoutTuesday, and announced a $100 million 'Racial Equity and Justice Initiative.' Whilst perhaps a small fraction of Apple's $1.4 trillion valuation, that's still a colossal amount of money. Yet last week, we noted that Apple needs to do even more to fight against social, political and racial in justice.

Just 7 days later, Apple and prolific video-conferencing platform Zoom have put themselves in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, namely censorship. Apple's decision to remove a popular podcasting app from its App Store in China and Zoom's outrageous treatment of pro-Chinese democracy advocates beg the same question: How long will we continue to turn a blind eye to censorship in tech?

Pocket Casts

Apple put itself back in the censorship spotlight earlier this week, after podcasting platform Pocket Casts was removed from the Chinese App Store at the behest of the Cyberspace Administration of China. As per usual in these cases, the reason given was that Pocket Casts included "content that is illegal in China." This is the exact same wording given to the developers of Plague Inc. and to the developers of the Quartz news app, both of whom also fell foul of Chinese censorship.

In response Pocket Casts stated "We believe podcasting is and should remain an open medium, free of government censorship. As such we won't be censoring podcast content at their request." It seems Pocket Casts was contacted by the CAC through Apple two days prior to its app being removed, and the timeline implies that was a request to censor some content on its platform, to which Pocket Casts said no.

Zoom

The second story this week, like the first, begins with a censorship request from the Chinese government. However key details make this episode far more egregious than the first. Earlier this week, it emerged that Zoom had banned the accounts of three Zoom users (two from the U.S. and one from Hong Kong) following Zoom meetings held to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The Chinese government alerted Zoom to four such meetings, which were advertised on social media and are illegal in China, and asked them to take action. Zoom ended three of the meetings after confirming in real time that participants on the call were based in China, suspending or terminating the accounts of the hosts, none of whom were actually from China. Zoom has since restored these accounts and admitted it fell short, but even that explanation rings hollow.

Going forward, Zoom says it would not allow requests from China "to impact anyone outside of mainland China", and that it would develop the technology to remove individual users from meetings based solely on their georgaphic location. These statements however, imply that Zoom is more than happy to comply with CAC requests concerning users within China, and that it is actively developing technology so that it can more effectively comply with censorship.

Censored

These are not the first instances of tech companies censoring users at the behest of governments, and China in particular has proven itself disposed to suppressing thought and speech it considers problematic. But why do these companies continue to kowtow to such requests, and should we keep allowing them to get away with it?

The issue is both simple and complex. There aren't many people who believe or agree that censorship is good, and its likely that Apple and Zoom don't feel that way either. Take for instance Zoom's response to this weeks events:

We hope that one day, governments who build barriers to disconnect their people from the world and each other will recognize that they are acting against their own interests, as well as the rights of their citizens and all humanity. The reality is Zoom operates in more than 80 countries and continues to expand, which requires compliance with local laws even as Zoom seeks to promote the open exchange of ideas.

Apple, like Zoom, is bound to local laws in the countries that it operates in. This same reasoning was behind controversial decisions made by Apple regarding changes to how Crimea and Sevastopol were displayed in its Maps software.

Companies face the prospect of consequences from governments should they not comply with these sorts of requests. Apple relies heavily on China as part of its production base, and falling out of love with the Chinese government could lead to a swathe of far-reaching consequences for Apple, its device production and us, the consumer.

Struggling for a response

The question is then, what is the right response to this? Obviously, agreeing to government censorship is probably the least ideal path to take in this predicament. But as we've noted, the consequences of refusing could be really damaging to companies. Should Apple or Zoom risk losing business, customers, or even the right to operate in countries by taking a stand against governments? Apple, for one, has never believe in a 'sideline' approach to these issues, and has always held that it can do more to affect change on issues from within, rather than from the outside. By way of example, Apple might well believe that it stands more chance of working towards a more preferable approach to censorship in China (or perhaps the end of censorship), if it remains within the government's good grace, perhaps in the same way that Tim Cook has cultivated a relationship with President Trump, despite their clearly different views on some matters.

There is no easy answer, and I for one don't believe that the answer is the continued compliance with government requests. Yet it seems to me that companies like Apple risk over-stepping the boundaries with governments like China, sabotaging their chance to affect any change at all. And even if Apple were to turn around and refuse a request from China or Russia, how much impact would that actually have? Would it be enough to make entrenched political regimes think twice about censoring their citizens? I don't think it would.

What do you think? Should companies like Apple and Zoom risk damaging their own businesses in a bid to push back against government censorship? Or is the political change required far beyond their scope of influence? How should a company like Apple respond to censorship, both governments requests and the wider issue?