A Civil Rights Company?

Photo by Youssef Sarhan on Unsplash

Much has been made of Tim Cook’s advocacy on issues of privacy and gay rights. The most recent iteration of Safari that was unveiled at WWDC will incorporate techniques that hinder, though won’t entirely stop, advertisers and websites from tracking users across the Internet. And Apple continues to support and promote gay rights; the most evident manifestations of this is Apple selling pride-inspired Apple Watch bands and a matching pride-based watch facealong with company’s CEO being an openly gay man.

It’s great that Apple is supporting these issues. But it’s equally important to reflect on Apple’s less rights-promoting activities. The company operates around the world and chooses to pursue profits to the detriment of the privacy of its China-based users. It clearly has challenges — along with all other smartphone companies — in acquiring natural mineral resources that are conflict-free; the purchase of conflict minerals raises fundamental human rights issues. And the company’s ongoing efforts to minimize its taxation obligations have direct impacts on the abilities of governments to provide essential services to those who are often the worst off in society.

Each of the above examples are easily, and quickly, reduced to assertions that Apple is a public company in a capitalist society. It has obligations to shareholders and, thus, can only do so much to advance basic rights while simultaneously pursuing profits. Apple is, on some accounts, actively attempting to enhance certain rights and promote certain causes and mitigate certain harms while simultaneously acting in the interests of its shareholders.

Those are all entirely fair, and reasonable, arguments. I understand them all. But I think that we’d likely all be well advised to consider Apple’s broader activities before declaring that Apple has ‘our’ backs, on the basis that ‘our’ backs are often privileged, wealthy, and able to externalize a range of harms associated with Apple’s international activities.