Apple is complicit in Chinese censorship.
There’s simply no other way to put it.
The big news in tech this week included Apple deleting religious apps from the Chinese App Store at the request of China. Recent apps deleted from the Chinese App Store include Quran Majeed, an app with Muslim scriptures, a Jehovah’s Witness app called Watchtower Library 2021, popular photo and video editor Picsart, the massively popular audio book app from Amazon Audible, and many more including games and social media apps.
Pre-emptively deleted by a publisher was the Olive Tree Bible, because the company does not have a permit to distribute “book or magazine content in mainland China,” Olive Tree Bible Software told the BBC.
FILE – In this Friday, May 13, 2016, file photo, a man uses his mobile phone near an Apple store in … [+] Beijing.
“By obeying the Chinese Communist Party’s order to remove Bible and Quran apps from its platform in China, Apple is enabling China’s religious persecution, including the ongoing genocide of Uyghur Muslims,” says Edward Ahmed Mitch, deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. “This decision must be reversed. If American corporations don’t grow a spine and stand up to China right now, they risk spending the next century subservient to the whims of a fascist superpower.”
Apple’s response?
In its commitment to human rights, the company says “people come first” and that Apple has a “commitment to human rights,” but that “we’re required to comply with local laws, and at times there are complex issues about which we may disagree with governments and other stakeholders on.”
That makes sense.
Companies cannot simply choose which local laws to obey and which to not obey. Doing so puts their local employees at risk — think Russia versus Twitter, or how Russia is bullying employees from Google and Apple — and fails to respect that different countries have the right to have different values and different laws.
The nuclear option is to leave a country with incompatible values, and that’s exactly what Microsoft is doing with LinkedIn. This would be suicidal for Apple, because almost all Apple products are manufactured in China, and China is a huge percentage of Apple’s revenue: over $20 billion in a recent quarter.
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Fortunately, there’s an easier option.
And it’s also an option that can make life much more chill for Apple in the face of dozens of global antitrust actions it will continue to face over the next few years.
Simply put, that option is sideloading apps.
Sideloading is the ability to install software on a smartphone that is not from an approved store. On Apple iPhone that would mean apps that don’t come directly from the Apple-controlled iOS App Store. Google’s Android already does this, and computing platforms since the dawn of the electronic age have allowed it, including Apple’s MacBooks and Microsoft Windows-powered laptops and desktops.
Straight-up: this does come with some risks.
They include revenue risks for Apple as the Epic Software’s of the world begin to offer their Fortnite games and Epic App Stores on iOS and take revenue away from Apple. And they include malware, adware, and virus risks for consumers who download apps that have not been fully vetted through the App Store app submission process.
However, sideloading apps on iPhones would satisfy what Apple says is its highest value: human rights.
“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,” the company’s commitment to human rights says. “In keeping with the UN Guiding Principles, where national law and international human rights standards differ, we follow the higher standard.”
Enabling sideloading probably won’t cost Apple a majority of its in-app purchase revenue or paid app revenue. Most people would still use the iOS App Store because it’s likely to be the safest and most reliable place to get the latest apps.
(And because Apple could pull a trick from the gaming console playbook and license apps for exclusive release on a mobile computing platform, or just on an App Store.)
But it would enable people in repressive regimes to access apps and therefore content that totalitarian or authoritarian local governments decide to prohibit. It would enable freedom. It would lessen censorship. It would respect international law over repressive national regulations.
Clearly, it’s not an easy decision. And it would be costly for Apple.
Allowing sideloading on Apple iPhones would also require some significant security work to make the process as safe as possible, and as free of bad apps as could be. You could even, theoretically, run sideloaded apps in a more secure sandboxed container to minimize risk.
This wouldn’t be easy or necessarily cheap. But it would be the right thing to do.
Apple: your move.
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