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Apple and Google’s Chinese climbdown

by on05 December 2017

Supporting the Great FireWall

In Big Brother, before a dissident was executed, they were expected to publicly renounce their own crimes and praise the government. In China Apple and Google have been doing just that.

So desperate to prop up his failing iPhone cash cow, Tim Cook turned up to give a surprise keynote at the opening ceremony calling for future internet and AI technologies to be infused with privacy, security and humanity.

Nothing wrong with that you might think, however Cook was sharing the podium with other speakers screaming for censorship to combat terrorism and criminals. Wang Huning, one of seven men on
China’s top decision-making body, even called for a global response team to go well beyond its borders

Cook either did not know why he was there, or was doing his best to pretend he didn’t. In his speech he claimed the theme of this conference -- developing a digital economy for openness and shared benefits -- is a vision we at Apple share,” Cook said.

However, the Wuzhen conference is designed to globally promote the country’s vision of a more censored and controlled internet. Cook’s presence gave the impression that China’s efforts to influence the global internet was backed by big Western tech.

While corporates might understand why Cook felt the need to “kiss the ring” it might not sit well with Apple’s target market at home. It is a sensible business move to use cheap Chinese labour, the fall-out when your suppliers use child labour is always embarrassing. Apple’s target market are the more liberal on the US political spectrum and these were the same guys who cheered the Tiananmen Square protests.

Cook needs to keep China, which is now its biggest market outside of North America. It relies on the sale of hardware and services in the world’s most populous country to propel revenue and profit growth.

But the efforts required to stay in China’s good graces are causing tensions with civil libertarians and politicians at home.

Apple has come under fire for cooperating with Chinese authorities in removing apps that give users there uncensored communications. In November, Apple complied with government orders to pull Microsoft Skype phone and video service from the Chinese version of its popular app store. Cook used an earnings call with investors to justify such moves, saying it obeyed the laws of the markets where it operates.

“Much has been said of the potential downsides of AI, but I don’t worry about machines thinking like humans. I worry about people thinking like machines. We all have to work to infuse technology with humanity, with our values.”

Unlike Cook, Google’s Pichai did not deliver a keynote speech and was instead on a panel to discuss the digital economy. The vast hall remained mostly empty for much of the session as a result of confusion among conference staff over when the session would begin.

His contribution was not as public and humiliating as Cook’s keynote presentation. But then Google has written off any change of making a bit impact in China. Outside Hong Kong it is not a significant search service.

Last modified on 05 December 2017
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