Previously published at WGBHNews.org.
Over the weekend Apple removed software from its Chinese App Store that enabled iPhone users to get around censorship laws in that country. The action was widely portrayed as a blow to those working for freedom and human rights in China. And it seemed especially tawdry following as it did the recent death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo while in Chinese custody.
But I would argue that Apple did the right thing. My intention is not to write a love letter to Apple, whose leadership, I’m sure, was motivated more by commerce rather than by conscience. Nevertheless, Apple’s decision was a welcome example of Americans’ dealing with the world as it is rather than as they wish it to be. Our values are not everyone’s values.
Typical of Apple’s critics is New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo, who couldn’t understand why Apple would back down so quickly after successfully fighting the FBI’s demand last year to provide a software key to a terrorist’s iPhone — and, thus, to all other iPhones as well.
“When Apple took a public stand for its users’ liberty and privacy, the American government blinked,” Manjoo wrote. “Yet in China over the weekend, when faced with a broad demand by the Chinese internet authority, it was Apple that blinked.” Yes. But what Manjoo was describing was not situational ethics on Apple’s part. Rather, it was the difference between the United States, a free country ruled by laws, and China, a repressive authoritarian state. In fact, as Manjoo conceded later in his column, Apple would likely have accomplished nothing by pushing back against Chinese officials.
China may show little respect for the rights of its citizens, but it is part of the world community. It makes sense to ban interactions with pariah regimes such as North Korea and Syria, and to prohibit companies from doing business in China in a way that leads to the direct persecution of citizens (something that could in fact arise from Apple’s plan to build a data center in China) or that involves prison labor. But we have no more right to impose our vision of free speech on China than, say, Canada does to insist that we adopt its immigration policies as a condition of doing business.
Besides, even most Western democracies do not have as expansive a view of free speech as we do — yet no one seems to find it outrageous that we accommodate ourselves to their laws when doing business overseas. In the early days of the commercial web, Yahoo was fined $15 million for violating French hate-speech laws that prohibited the display and sale of Nazi memorabilia. Such laws would be regarded in the United States as an outrage against the First Amendment. But of course Europe has a history with hate speech that, so far, we have been fortunate to avoid.
More recently, Google has had to contend with “the right to be forgotten,” as European Union countries — again led by France — have passed laws requiring that certain types of private information be removed from the internet. To comply, Google has set up an “EU Privacy Removal” form that lets users fill out a questionnaire about offending material.
As an online columnist for The Guardian from 2007 to ’11, I had to contend with British libel laws several times. My editors told me that some of my media and political commentary had to be toned down even though it wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in this country. Indeed, at one time it was common for plaintiffs to engage in “libel tourism,” filing suits in the U.K. because they were more likely to win there than in the U.S. Reforms have made that less of an issue, but it is still far easier to win a libel suit in London than in New York. The difference is that, under the First Amendment, speech about public officials and public figures is protected except when it is egregiously and deliberately false.
All of this, I realize, is rather far afield from the oppression and violence experienced by anyone in China who refuse to conform. These examples do show, however, that American businesses see nothing abnormal about adapting their practices to other countries’ laws and traditions, even on fundamental values like freedom of expression.
In 1940 Sen. Kenneth Wherry, a Nebraska Republican, cast an eye toward China and declared, “With God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.” It was a naive view of American exceptionalism then, and it is expressed today by those who think we can use our economic leverage to bend China to our will.
We can’t, and Apple’s executives recognize that. Despite its repression, China today is freer than it was when Richard Nixon made his historic visit. We can hope that it will be more free in the future. By engaging with the Chinese on their own terms, we might be able slowly help that process along.