Dear Tim Cook: Here’s how Google handled Chinese censorship

After a U.S. election in which state-sponsored disinformation may have helped tip the scales, I expect more from Apple than passive compliance.

From the Wall Street Journal, 7 years ago:

Google Inc.’s startling threat to withdraw from China was an intensely personal decision, drawing its celebrated founders and other top executives into a debate over the right way to confront the issues of censorship and cyber security.

Google’s very public response … was crafted over a period of weeks, with heavy involvement from Google’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

For the two men, China has always been a sensitive topic. Mr. Brin has long confided in friends and Google colleagues of his ambivalence in doing business in China, noting that his early childhood in Russia exacerbated the moral dilemma of cooperating with government censorship, people who have spoken to him said. Over the years, Mr. Brin has served as Google’s unofficial corporate conscience, the protector of its motto “Don’t be Evil.”

Mr. Schmidt made the argument he long has, according to these people, namely that it is moral to do business in China in an effort to try to open up the regime. Mr. Brin strenuously argued the other side, namely that the company had done enough trying and that it could no longer justify censoring its search results.

The three ultimately agreed they should disclose the [Chinese] attack publicly, trying to break with what they saw as a conspiratorial culture of companies keeping silent about attacks of this nature, according to one person familiar with the matter.

I know, I know. That’s easy for Google to say. China is not its second biggest market, or the assembly point for its most profitable products.

But after a Presidential election in which state-sponsored disinformation may have helped tip the scales, I expect more from Apple than passive compliance.

Note: This is an especially sensitive issue for Tim Cook, who made his bones at Apple fine-tuning its Asian supply chain. China began blocking the Times’ websites in 2012 after the paper ran a series of articles on the wealth of the family of then-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. According to the Times, the new crackdown coincides with their investigative report—based on leaked Chinese government documents—about billions of dollars in hidden perks and subsidies China gives Apple’s Asian partners. See Apple, China, Trump and trouble


  1. Tom Wyrick said:
    “But after a Presidential election in which state-sponsored disinformation helped tip the scales, I expect more from Apple than passive compliance.”

    First, the claim that state-sponsored disinformation (Russia) helped tip the scales of the US election is a conjecture, not a fact. Second, China is regulating behavior of its own citizens as opposed to Russia meddling in US politics. So the two cases are unrelated, except in a conspiracy theory that hasn’t been fleshed out yet.

    Third, before labeling Apple’s response to China as “passive compliance,” one would need inside information about conversations that took place behind closed doors, plus legal opinions from a team of lawyers. Transcripts of those conversations are not available, though. So “passive compliance” is “uninformed opinion.”

    Contrary to the implication of the headline, Tim Cook knows how Google handled Chinese censorship. It was in the news. Tim Cook knows how China handled Google, too. It was in the news.

    Here are my questions on the matter: 1-What would happen to the price of Apple stock if Tim Cook told Chinese regulators that the NYT news app would be installed on Chinese iPhones, come hell or high water? 2-On what moral basis would an American CEO dictate Chinese political rights?

    (By the way, China is mad at the NYT for publishing articles about the families and associates of top Chinese officials getting rich through official corruption. So I agree that in a just world the NYT app would be installed on Chinese iPhones. But it is not Apple’s responsibility to create a just world.)

    January 5, 2017
    • “First, the claim that state-sponsored disinformation (Russia) helped tip the scales of the US election is a conjecture, not a fact.”

      Right you are. I added a “may have.”

      January 5, 2017
      • Tom Wyrick said:
        Nope. That sentence I quoted still exists in the article. You only changed the caption below the title of the article. It was extracted from the article.

        But in an article about Chinese censorship, why mention Russian hackers at all? They are unrelated topics. What China is doing is not illegal, aimed at the USA or hidden.

        “China began blocking the Times’ websites in 1972.”

        Right after the Nixon visit?

        January 5, 2017
        • Fixed in text as well. Why conflate Russia and China, two authoritarian regimes without a tradition of press freedom? Do you have to ask?

          January 5, 2017
          • Tom Wyrick said:
            If the subject is press freedom or communism, then I understand the parallel between Russia and China.

            But isn’t the topic Apple instead of politics and communism?

            If the subject is press freedoms, then we should be rejoicing about the news apps installed on iPhones in dozens of un-free nations around the globe. Those nations were restricting press freedoms and human rights before Apple entered the scene, and iPhone (plus copy-cat smartphones from other companies) have improved the situation. Chinese oligarchs have been undermined by the news and other cultural content delivered via iPhone (books, movies, apps), and your only response is negative.

            You began with a story about Chinese censorship and tried to make it into a story about Apple. You tried to make it urgent by mixing in Russia and Trump. The headline is click-bait.

            January 5, 2017
    • Peter Kropf said:
      I’d add Apple’s risky downside on bad relations with China is perhaps more than 50% of its business value, keeping in mind that China is both primary supplier, and highest future rev and profit region in growth and magnitude.

      Remember Microsoft and Steve Jobs? He was quite pragmatic and wise by making and keeping peace with MS. Although the issue wasn’t censorship, MS maintained dominance and forced submission/cooperation just as China is today.

      January 5, 2017
  2. Richard Wanderman said:
    The supplier piece isn’t quite right: China doesn’t supply iPhones, Foxconn assembles them in plants that it owns in China. Foxconn has plants in other countries and maybe India soon. Apple has leverage on both Foxconn and China in that they can pressure Foxconn to start to move production to other plants in other countries.

    No doubt there are supply chain issues that keep Apple/Foxconn in China but if politics gets in the way, Apple can eat a bit of margin and move if it wants to.

    All of that said, I think it was a mistake for Trump to call Taiwan and put in question the growing relationship between the US and China, if for no other reason than China, more than the US, holds the North Korean idiot in check.

    January 5, 2017
  3. Fred Stein said:
    Some concerns:
    1) Certainly actions in Russia had impact on our elections. We don’t know which were state sponsored and which grass roots. It’s worth noting that most major governments, ours included, engage in shady activities — since the dawn of civilization.
    2) In the media at large there’s a lot of attention on the hacking and the use of new media. Valid, newsworthy, but missing the iceberg below. This iceberg includes conservative cable channels for 2 decades, local news talk radio for decades more, and the Koch brothers. Regardless of anyone’s views of the above, they have been extremely effective, far more impactful than Russia or China. Actions taken by Apple or Google with Russia or China won’t change the local influences.
    3) While Chinese manufacturing and consumption are a big deal for Apple, there are other much larger issues. Looking to future, China will be a larger part of the world economy, pool of intellectual property (which is the most valuable), and power. This will happen regardless of what Apple, Google, or new administration, do. It will happen even if the Chinese economy suffers some disruption near term.

    As for Google’s and Apple’s approaches, Tim Cook recently stated after joining the tech delegation to Trump Tower, (paraphrasing), “It’s better not to sit on the sidelines.” Just my opinion, Chinese companies like Huawei could fork Android and serve not just the Chinese market, but all emerging markets.

    January 5, 2017
  4. John Kirk said:
    A personal story. My father was a school superintendent. In the 1950s and 1960s, segregation was still a very real issue. He told me a story about a fellow school superintendent who was all gung-ho for integration. He got fired and was replaced with a staunch segregationist. That school district was the last one in the State to be forced to integrate.

    The lesson I believe he was trying to convey was that it’s better to do what you can and push progress forward rather than to try to do too much and set progress back.

    I have a lot of respect for my father, but I’ve always wondered about that lesson. It seems to me that it can all too easily be used to justify one’s failure to even try to take a risk in order to pursue what one knows is right.

    I think (and hope) that all of this is relevant to today’s discussion. Apple, and most every other company, is stuck in a tough place. They have to comply with the law of the land if they want to operate in that land. But should they continue to operate there if that land violates the principles they believe in? Or should they stick it out and try to make changes from within?

    I’d like to say that I’ve resolved the dilemma and here’s my pat answer. I’d like to say that, but I can’t. I don’t have any pat answers. And I dearly wish I did.

    January 5, 2017
    • Tom Wyrick said:
      John – I appreciate your story. One who challenges moral wrongs may suffer a career setback, and his/her organization may be made to suffer, too. In cases that get handled privately, it is always possible that the individual backed down immediately, instead of fighting for principle. I have seen that behavior close-up, more often than the opposite.

      But … that is not behavior Tim Cook has exhibited over the years. He has taken a number of principled stands on public policy issues, and defended them without apology — more than other CEO’s who come to mind. Cook has spent billions on solar energy and recycling, and demanded better working conditions for the employees of Foxconn and other suppliers. He butted heads with various states, the FBI, the Chinese government and Carl Icahn. He came out of the closet on principle — not for public attention or money. He provided no more details about his private meeting with Mr. Trump than we know about his conversations with China’s Xi.

      Yet today’s Apple 3.0 article claims — without a shred of evidence — that Cook and Apple were “passive” in the face of Chinese meddling in the App Store.

      Why should Tim Cook be criticized, or have to defend his commitment to human rights, against know-nothing charges like these? All we really know for certain is that Chinese regulators wanted the NYT app out of the App Store, and they got what they demanded. The rest is fiction.

      Substituting suspicion for fact is the distinguishing characteristic of modern (click-bait) journalism. There are not enough real facts to generate a steady flow of readers. Subscription fees should remedy this trend.

      January 5, 2017
      • John Kirk said:
        You make some great points, Tom. You re-remind me that Tim Cook has often gone above and beyond in order to take principled positions on difficult issues. I suspect he’s seething at having had to remove the app from the store. I also suspect he’ll do all he can to have it reinstated, short of hurting Apple’s interests in China.

        January 5, 2017
  5. John Butt said:
    Be nice to have Apple News in NZ to even have the opportunity for anyone to object to it. I have to use a VPN to see it – or register my iPad as being in Australia!
    Apple makes decisions in every country based on many factors – lol

    January 6, 2017

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