Yes, yes, it is common knowledge that all CEOs do is make money, eat hot chip, and lie. This is especially true for Silicon Valley executives, who give the impression that their first words as infants were doublespeak. But Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, operates on his own level.
The gadget-enthusiast magic factory last week removed software from its App Store that allowed protesters in Hong Kong to track the movements of law enforcement. Apple claimed in a statement that the app, HKmap.live, was being used “to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and [that] criminals have used it to victimise residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement.”
Demonstrators have been in the streets of Hong Kong since June, initially in protest of proposed legislation (since withdrawn) that would have allowed extradition under certain circumstances to mainland China. The protests have swelled since then, amid rising anger with the brutality of the police in cracking down on dissidents. The widely tweeted-about and livestreamed protests make the Chinese government look very bad, compelling them to apply pressure to American tech companies, who are now swiftly yanking apps in the name of security. In the case of HKmap.live, activists claim that such concerns are a load of bullshit, and in the words of organizer Joshua Wong, Apple only “made the decision to remove it right after the criticism from the Chinese state-owned People’s Daily” newspaper.
In an email to Apple employees, Cook addressed specific allegations that (surprise!) authorities in Hong Kong might be misrepresenting the threat posed to police by the HKmap.live app. “Over the past several days we received credible information, from the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau, as well as from users in Hong Kong, that the app was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimize individuals and property where no police are present,” Cook wrote. “This use put the app in violation of Hong Kong law.”
It’s interesting to consider these words in relation to the quote in Cook’s Twitter bio: “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?’”, once said by Martin Luther King, Jr. in a sermon. It is useless to pose a hypothetical asking what use marchers in Selma might have made of an app like HKmap.live in their own community; what’s happening in Hong Kong comes close enough.
This is hardly the first time a tech CEO has revealed the vast distance between the proclaimed ethical obligations of his corporation and its actual practice; Google — motto, previously, “don’t be evil” — has also removed apps related to the Hong Kong protest. But Cook, in particular, has spent years telling us that he and Apple are above this kind of corporate tyranny. After all, Apple has a perfect rating from the Human Rights Campaign for its treatment of LGBTQ workers, and it touts operations that are “globally powered by 100 percent renewable energy.” And where other companies (cough, Facebook and Google) operate as relentless user data sponges, Cook soberly warns regulators of the new “data-industrial complex.” When American law enforcement comes knocking on its doors, Apple does not let investigators pry into its customers’ information — it proudly sends them packing, even if it is not a politically popular move.
But America is not China. The FBI is not going to require Apple cease operations for refusing to comply with authorities’ demands to get into an iPhone, whereas China would absolutely give Apple the boot for refusing to do something similar (which is why the company moved its iCloud servers to the Chinese mainland last year). And this is where Cook’s ethical supremacy is overridden by his business interests. China represents roughly a fifth of Apple’s entire sales revenue, and Cook knows that Wall Street would not look kindly upon Apple for cutting off its access to the Chinese market. Even Cook knows that are times when it's important to hedge his company's vague social liberalism; as Donald Trump was cruising to the Republican nomination in 2016, Cook hosted a GOP fundraiser with then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Apple’s ethics are only as good as its profit margins.
Cook is making the cynical bet that his employees will take him at his word when he claims there were real threats to armed and armored Hong Kong police posed by a mapping app, and that everyone else will eventually move on. Whether that bet turns out to be correct is beside the point. By Cook’s own lofty standards, his decision is an obvious moral failure.
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