Pressure from investors has forced Apple to speak up for free speech

Fears of Apple bowing to pressure from Beijing to restrict "freedom of information and expression" prompted investors to press for official policies.

A protester in Hong Kong can be seen with a white hat and black face covering that hides the lower h...
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Like every multinational company that wants to do business with China, Apple has learned that means kowtowing to Beijing's demands. In 2017, for example, the company took down 674 virtual private network (VPN) apps after Chinese authorities objected to them allowing Chinese citizens to communicate privately, away from the government's prying eyes. At the time, Tim Cook explained, "We would obviously rather not remove the apps but, like we do in other countries, we follow the law wherever we do business."

Things are getting a little heated now. In an unprecedented move, Apple has published its very first human rights policy in favor of favor speech, The Financial Times reports. It doesn't mention China explicitly, but it's clear that Apple wants to be seen to be complying with the September 5 deadline it has to present something concrete to shareholders.

Conscience versus cash — Throughout the four-page document where Apple outlines its new policies on free speech the company tries to strike a balance between respecting individual nations' laws and internationally recognized human rights. It states, for instance, that it recognizes and respects standards set by the United Nations:

We’re deeply committed to respecting internationally recognized human rights in our business operations, as set out in the United Nations International Bill of Human Rights and the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Our approach is based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. We conduct human rights due diligence to identify risks and work to mitigate them. We seek to remedy adverse impacts, track and measure our progress, and report our findings.

That said, immediately after that passage, Apple says that while it indeed views internationally recognized human rights with regard and gravity, it still must respect local laws in various countries. This is understandable as Cook's company could suffer mass damage to reputation and revenue if it chooses an interventionist position and tone. Also, it's job is to make money for shareholders, not cast moral aspersions on nation-states, no matter how objectionable some policies might be.

While juggling local and international laws, Apple also has to keep two other crowds happy: consumers and industry peers. Calibration is the name of the game, and Apple sounds desperate to satisfy everyone.

The inconvenient truth — For decades, much of the American tech sector has attempted to paint itself as politically neutral. That mask has arguably slipped more in the last two decades than ever. Facebook's most popular content comes from the right-hand side of the political spectrum, despite claims from conservatives the platform silences them. At the same time, Mark Zuckerberg issues passionate soundbites in favor of peace and equality while militant far-right groups freely organize on his network.

Apple, meanwhile, was accused of exploiting labor laws in China just last year, which doesn't exactly align with its promises to uphold international human rights. As ever, it's thanks to threatening their purses that tech giants are forced to change. Because unless shareholders are going to be affected, there's simply no incentive to be better.