Hi all, Gerrit De Vynck here. I usually write about Google, algorithms and misinformation, but I’ll be guest hosting The Tech 202 today. 

The days of U.S. tech companies fighting back against authoritarian regimes are long gone

Last week, the makers of a globally popular Koran app said Apple had kicked them off its app store in China. The app is used by millions of Muslims around the world to study the Koran and track prayer times. Though Islam is legal in China, the government has for years been attempting to limit the activities of those living in the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang, taking steps like arresting imams and detaining hundreds of thousands of people in camps where they are sometimes tortured.

In that context, removing a Koran app looks like Apple yielding to a government attempt to harass Muslims in the country. 

A spokesperson for Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment, but the company directed the BBC to its human rights statement, which includes the line: “We’re required to comply with local laws, and at times there are complex issues about which we may disagree with governments.”

Apple’s deference to the Chinese regime is well-documented. China is where nearly all of the company’s smartphones are made — and where 1 in 5 of them are sold, netting Apple more than $40 billion a year in revenue. Human rights groups have documented how key Apple suppliers use forced labor from Xinjiang. In 2020, The Washington Post reported that Apple lobbyists tried to water down a bill in Congress that would require U.S. companies to ensure they don’t use forced labor in China. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that Apple blocks apps from its app store if they mention off-limits topics like Tiananmen Square.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has said the value of operating in the country outweighs the compromises necessary to run Apple’s business there. “My own view very strongly is you show up and you participate, you get in the arena, because nothing ever changes from the sideline,” he told attendees at a Chinese tech conference in 2017.

Apple isn’t the only company to make some concessions to authoritarian governments while arguing there are long-term benefits to remaining in those countries. 

Though U.S. tech companies have pushed back over the years when authoritarian governments ask them to ban specific people and take down posts, they have by now largely opted to follow local laws in the countries where they operate, even if those laws are specifically crafted to give governments the power to censor social media.

In Vietnam, Google took down a video game from its app store that allowed users to battle with characters named after local leaders. Facebook has also agreed to cut off content the Vietnamese government said was illegal. The company says it restricts some content so that it can stay open for the millions of other people who use its services in the country.

It’s not clear that American tech companies’ presence in China and other authoritarian countries improved human rights in those places. 

In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has only tightened its grip on business, media and other institutions, according to human rights group Freedom House. Technology has played a key role, with the country developing sophisticated surveillance systems to track and control the lives of its citizens. Repression of the Muslim-majority Uyghurs has intensified. In Vietnam, the government has passed increasingly strict laws governing Internet content. The same goes for Thailand and the Philippines, also places where Facebook, YouTube and Apple are popular. Yet another example came last month on the eve of the Russian elections, when both Apple and Google removed an app from their app stores that directed voters to cast ballots for politicians opposed to President Vladimir Putin. The government had threatened to arrest employees if the companies didn’t comply.

Of course, expecting corporations to take a stand based on a certain set of ideological values may be naive. The companies are beholden to their shareholders first, and that means seeking to grow as fast as possible, elbowing out potential competitors and cementing their control over online communication and commerce.

But the influence U.S. tech companies have in other countries has been underlined even more by disclosures made by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen in recent weeks. In testimony to Congress, she detailed how the company knew intimately the ways its platform was being used to harm people, but held back on making drastic changes. Misinformation and hate speech is more prevalent and taken down less often in non-English speaking countries, Haugen said. 

Companies like Facebook, Google and Apple have played foundational roles in creating the Internet we have today. Just like social media was celebrated as a tool of anti-authoritarian revolution during the Arab Spring, those companies must now reckon with how oppressive governments are using their technologies to extend their power and control. 

Governments around the world have realized the importance of controlling technology and the Internet, and they’re not about to stop now, whether the big U.S. tech companies like it or not.

Our top tabs

Apple’s app ads have gained market share after company’s privacy push

Apple’s advertising in the App Store is responsible for more than half of the app downloads that take place after a user taps an ad, mobile marketing firm Branch told the Financial Times’s Patrick McGee. That’s more than triple the rate from a year ago.

Facebook has been one of the most vocal critics of recent Apple updates that confront users with a choice over whether they want to be tracked. Facebook’s share of app installs from ads has shrunk since Apple introduced the “App Tracking Transparency” feature on its devices, according to Branch.

Apple says the changes aim to protect users, telling the Financial Times “the technologies are part of one comprehensive system designed to help developers implement safe advertising practices and protect users — not to advantage Apple.”

Instagram focused its marketing on getting teenagers’ attention 

Most of Instagram’s global marketing budget since 2018 was earmarked for trying to win teenagers over, the New York Times’s Sheera Frenkel, Ryan Mac and Mike Isaac report, citing planning documents and people familiar with the matter. The report comes as lawmakers and regulators look into Instagram owner Facebook’s practices after Haugen leaked internal reports on the platform’s impacts on teens.

“If we lose the teen foothold in the U.S. we lose the pipeline,” a strategy memo from October 2020 read.

Instagram doesn’t focus its entire marketing budget on teens, Facebook spokeswoman Liza Crenshaw told the New York Times. Including teenagers in the marketing strategy is not a surprise because “teens are one of our most important communities because they spot and set trends,” Crenshaw said.

Apple fired an employee who was critical of how the company handled misconduct allegations

Janneke Parrish, an Apple Maps product manager, was involved in a movement at the company that has tried to boost working conditions at the tech giant, Reed Albergotti reports. Parrish says she is under investigation for leaking details about Cook's Sept. 18 virtual Town Hall meeting. She denies leaking confidential information about the company and says she was fired for being involved in the #AppleToo movement.

So far, the movement has resulted in largely anonymous testimonials from hundreds of employees, including people working at the company's global retail stores. They accuse the company of setting up “an opaque, intimidating fortress” that tolerates “racism, sexism, discrimination, retaliation, bullying, sexual and other forms of harassment.”

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Rant and rave

Twitter reacted to the New York Times's reporting on Instagram's quest to attract teenagers. Early Facebook investor Roger McNamee, who is a critic of the company:

The New York Times's Pui-Wing Tam:

The Week's Ryan Cooper:

Privacy monitor

Mentions

  • The Center for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue has announced a new Washington office and two new advisory board members, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal and former Undersecretary of State Robert Hormats. It also announced five new fellows: IBM’s Dr. Edward Barth, Google’s Alexis Bonnell, Perimus Consulting’s Simone Ledeen, Wiley Rein’s Nazak Nikakhtar and the Atlantic Council’s Dr. Kaush Arha.

Trending

Daybook

  • New York City’s chief technology officer, John Paul Farmer, speaks at an Aspen Institute event about broadband inclusion on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
  • The Federal Trade Commission discusses the privacy practices of Internet service providers at a meeting on Thursday at 1 p.m.
  • Alondra Nelson, deputy director for science and society at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, participates in a Brookings Institution event on technology equity on Thursday at 2 p.m.
  • House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) discusses law enforcement algorithms at a Brookings Institution event on Oct. 25 at 3 p.m.

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