Last month, Google and Apple pledged to investigate an app in their stores called Absher. The name roughly translates as “yes sir,” which is fitting: Absher is an e-government service, and the Saudi government is an engine of sexist repression — so in addition to the app’s innocuous uses, the app is a tool for enforcing the regime’s guardianship system. That includes allowing men to input where and when women under their watch are allowed to travel, so that the government may serve them alerts when those wards leave or enter the country. It also includes giving them access to women’s flight logs.
Apparently, Google is done investigating. Satisfied that Absher does not violate its terms of service, the company has decided to allow the app to remain in its store. Apple still has not made its decision but, in the meantime, Absher is still around, and Saudi women are still under constant surveillance.
Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women is a much bigger problem than Absher: On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that an American woman now divorced from a Saudi man is trapped in the country because her ex-husband let her residency expire and she cannot get authorization to leave. But one way of chipping away at a system of oppression is to make that system more difficult to enforce. Instead, Google and Apple, if the latter does not come to a different conclusion in its review, are allowing abuse to occur at the tap of a smartphone screen.
Google’s excuse for abdicating its commitment to human rights is far from convincing. Terms of service are not an unalterable set of commandments engraved in stone. On the contrary, Google can revise the rules an app must follow to remain in its store whenever it wants — and it does. Every one of those rules and every one of those revisions, from not allowing pornography to prohibiting harassment, is a choice.
How those rules are applied is a choice, too. If Absher violated any of Google’s existing terms, it could be in the “hate speech” category: Google bars apps that “promote violence, or incite hatred against individuals or groups” based on characteristics “associated with systemic discrimination or marginalization.” Absher may not explicitly promote violence or incite hatred. But what does Absher do if not further the same systemic discrimination Google highlights?
No one asked Google whether Absher violated the letter of its current rules. Instead they asked whether Google, Apple or any other company would facilitate the sexist strictures of a regime that not only oppresses women but also tortures and kills journalists, activists and other critics. The answer should be no.