As a friend battled viruses on his brand-new Windows computer this week, I thought again about just how spoiled Apple users are by better security and better privacy than Android and Windows folks live with. Long adept at bringing such advantages to the masses that will never try (much less secure) Linux, Apple has one vulnerability is tech prowess cannot overcome: China.
For years, the iPhone has had a nifty feature called AirDrop (nifty enough Samsung eventually cribbed it) that made it easy and quick to share virtually anything sharable on the phone with another nearby iPhone user with just a couple of taps without ever sending the data over the Internet. For average users, it is a nice way to quickly send a photo or maybe a 21st century version of a folded paper love note in school.
AirDrop, though, can do far more important work: in protests like the ones presently happening in China, people fearing government tracking can pass along crucial information in a way that doesn’t clue in the authoritarian regime’s tracking apparatus by passing along AirDrop messages to those nearby.
If one is trying to collaborate with other freedom fighters in such a situation, one can turn AirDrop to a setting allowing receiving messages from “everyone,” and then if someone with information happens to be near, the notification that a message is being sent will show up without having to pre-approve that person.
However, early this month, Apple hobbled that function by making the ability to receive messages from “Everyone” turn off after 10 minutes. While I wish I could excuse the change by saying Apple had noticed a large problem with AirDrop spam or something, the change only applies in China — the one authoritarian regime with enough sway over Apple that it could demand and get such a change.
While Apple rightly stood with other companies against Russia earlier this year, pulling its products from that country, any such heroism against China has been notably absent. China is not only much larger population-wise than Russia, but it also represents a significant part of Apple’s bottom line — almost 19% this past quarter — and a massive part of its production line.
The last part represents perhaps the epicenter of Apple’s dilemma: even if Apple could disavow China from a sales standpoint — one of the few moves its usually busy-being-evil rival Google has handled a tad better — the regime still has a chokehold on Apple since the company is dependent on producing virtually everything it sells in China.
Apple knows this and has been making moves in the right direction, such as producing more iPhones in India and planning to produce chips with its chipmaking partner, TSMC, in the United States. These are baby steps, though, and the grip of the Communist Party of China on the company will not be loosed without many, many more of them.
The best moral tests are those that come at us when there is significant risk to doing the right thing and Apple’s strategy of appeasement towards the Chinese government reveals an unwillingness to take such risks while still so exposed in China.
First, Apple agreed to move its handling of iCloud into China, and put it under a state-owned Chinese company’s control to avoid those crucial service functions of the iPhone being cut off. Then Apple bowed to Chinese pressure and dropped the Taiwanese flag from the emoji picker not only in mainland China but also the marginally autonomous Hong Kong. That was followed by a second concession in Hong Kong, as apps used to help the freedom focused protests there were removed from the App Store.
And now AirDrop.
While one could argue that Apple still offers the best Internet-enabled tools to avoid government spying in China (and that is even more true for those of us outside of China), the willingness to appease perhaps the most dangerous regime in the world for the sake of profits is worrisome. Apple has long spoken of ideals of free speech, privacy, outside-the-box thinking and the like, but those seem to fold on the altar of the Chinese market.
Apple is hardly alone in this of course. Whether it was the disgraceful stance of the NBA a few years back or the self-censorship of Disney, American companies increasingly dependent on the benefits of doing business in China are at an alarming frequency showing a willingness to censor for the sake of the Chinese Communist Party’s favor. And we aren’t even discussing American allowances for organizations like TikTok to operate in the United States despite deep ties to the Chinese state that troubled the last two White House administrations.
But those are matters for another day. The matter today is simple and disturbing: Apple, which has been such a fantastic champion for “privacy as a fundamental human right” around the world, is bowing in a place where protection from government spying is perhaps most needed.
That is not only bad for the Chinese who want to stand up for freedom, it also undercuts Apple’s moral argument on privacy in places like our own country. Such weakness is something both Democrats and Republicans may be willing to exploit to add more force to their efforts to compel Apple to allow invasive government actions against us here.
China is Apple’s rotten fruit. For the company’s sake and ours, Apple needs to decide to stand for its principles there — even if it costs.
Disclosure: the author owns shares of stock in Apple (AAPL).