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Apple’s Tim Cook blasts Silicon Valley over privacy issues

October 24, 2018 at 11:44 AM

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Apple chief executive Tim Cook addressed privacy and artificial intelligence at a European Union conference at the E.U. Parliament in Brussels Oct. 24. (AP)

Apple chief executive Tim Cook on Wednesday warned the world’s most powerful regulators that the poor privacy practices of some tech companies, the ills of social media and the erosion of trust in his own industry threaten to undermine “technology’s awesome potential” to address challenges such as disease and climate change.

In a searing critique of Silicon Valley — delivered from the well of the European Parliament in Brussels — Cook began by emphasizing he remains optimistic that “new technologies are driving breakthroughs in humanity’s greatest common projects.”

But the Apple leader expressed alarm about divisive political rhetoric that proliferates on social media platforms, and rogue actors and governments that seize on algorithms to “deepen divisions, incite violence, and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false.”

He also lamented an emerging “data-industrial complex” — a play on a 1960s-era criticism of defense contractors — that allows companies to “know you better than you may know yourself.” Cook didn’t mention Facebook, Google or any other company by name.

Cook stressed that privacy is a “fundamental human right.” He praised the European Union’s newly implemented tough data-protection rules, and he called on U.S. regulators to pass a comprehensive digital privacy law of their own. 

Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers a keynote during the European Union's privacy conference at the EU Parliament in Brussels, Belgium Oct. 24, 2018. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

“Now, more than ever — as leaders of governments, as decision-makers in business, and as citizens — we must ask ourselves a fundamental question: What kind of world do we want to live in?” he said.

For Cook, the speech Wednesday in Brussels marked his highest-profile critique to date of his peers in Silicon Valley. Hours later, top executives from Facebook and Google similarly pledged to protect their users’ data and pursue new advancements, such as artificial intelligence, in a responsible way. “We want to make sound choices and build products that benefit society,” Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google, said in a video address to attendees.

Ultimately, though, Cook’s calls could serve to embolden policymakers and watchdogs from Europe and around the world to take further aim at U.S. tech giants.

Armed with its new privacy rules, the General Data Protection Regulation, the E.U. has forced companies, including Facebook, to give users more choice over what happens with their data — or face fines up to 4 percent of their global revenue. 

The E.U. also has questioned the corporate footprints of some of the largest tech firms. The bloc’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, imposed her latest fine against Google in July, and last month she announced a probe into Amazon’s use of data. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

Apple has felt the sting of the E.U. over its tax practices. The bloc slapped the iPhone maker with a $15 billion bill in 2016, contending that it had received unfair tax incentives from Ireland. Apple paid but is still appealing.

The issue loomed over Cook this week. He met on Tuesday with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been pushing his E.U. counterparts to force tech giants to pay higher taxes. Cook also plans to meet Frans Timmermans, the E.U.’s first vice president, on Thursday, according to his public schedule.

Cook has long been outspoken about privacy as he seeks to separate Apple from competitors such as Google, which rely on harnessing personal information about Web users to serve them targeted ads. During his speech Wednesday, Cook commended the new E.U. rules as a sign that “good policy and political will can come together to protect the rights of us all.”

“Now, there are those who would prefer I hadn’t said all of that,” Cook said about his call for U.S. rules. “Some oppose any form of privacy legislation. Others will endorse reform in public, and then resist and undermine it behind closed doors.” He added: “But this notion isn’t just wrong, it is destructive.”

Cook began adopting a harder edge after mishaps rocked Facebook earlier this year. That includes the social media giant’s entanglement with a political consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, which improperly accessed data on 87 million of the site’s users.

“The truth is, we could make a ton of money if we monetized our customer — if our customer was our product. We’ve elected not to do that,” Cook said about the controversy in March. Asked how he would have handled the incident, the Apple chief replied: “I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Speaking later Wednesday, Google’s Pichai also stressed that privacy is an “individual right that we must continue to work together to uphold.” He said the company is rethinking some of the ways it collects, taps and monetizes user data, and Google leaders announced they would make it easier for users to delete some of their information, including their search histories.

Quentin Ariès contributed to this report from Brussels.

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Tony Romm is a technology policy reporter at The Washington Post. He has spent more than eight years covering the ways that tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Google navigate the corridors of government -- and the regulations that sometimes result.

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