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Silicon Valley needs to grow a backbone and stand up to China

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Big tech talks a good game. Apple says it “cares deeply about the people who build our products,” Microsoft calls tech “a powerful force for good,” and Google says it “helps those affected by crises through our products, our people, and our partners.”

But at the end of the day, all of these companies still do business with China, and it’s easy to see why. Money.

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Apple is on track to do about $43 billion worth of revenue in China this year — a Delta Airlines or American Express worth, noted a recent Forbes article. Microsoft counts China as its second-largest revenue stream, according to CNBC. Google services are blocked in the country, of course, but it still does a range of business there, from hardware manufacturing to cloud services to licensing.

China is an ethical blind spot for many in tech: We ignore the working conditions under which our beautiful devices are made, the censorship and surveillance necessary to ship apps there, the environmental externalities of coal-powered Chinese Bitcoin farms.

— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) October 24, 2018

Just as Chinese companies like Huawei and TCL have seen a path to world-domination that leads straight through America’s breadbasket, so too have American companies looked east and seen dollar bills. The enormous potential for China is why companies like Apple and Google caved to pressure and removed an app from their smartphone stores that was meant to organize democratic activists in Hong Kong. But China has proven to be a bad partner time and again, from egregious human rights abuses to crackdowns on peaceful protest to widespread censorship. “China is an ethical blind spot for many in tech,” noted Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer last year. Nothing’s changed. In fact, the Hong Kong protests have underscored this issue.

Enough is enough: It’s time for Silicon Valley to leave China.

Life from both sides now

Every big American tech company has a public policy that explicitly contrasts with what is and has happened in China. Take Microsoft for example, a company that takes pains to do the right thing — and often does. The company recently revamped a suite of its tools explicitly to support non-profit companies, a move worth celebrating.

Microsoft officially takes steps meant to counter threats to democracy, too; a blog post from Smith last year announced an expansion of  Microsoft’s Defending Democracy Program, which provides state-of-the-art cybersecurity protection at no extra cost to all candidates and campaign offices at the federal, state, and local level. “It’s clear that democracies around the world are under attack. Foreign entities are launching cyber strikes to disrupt elections and sow discord. Unfortunately, the internet has become an avenue for some governments to steal and leak information [and] spread disinformation,” Smith wrote.

Hong Kong Protests
A pro-democracy protester holds a luminous sign as she attends a rally in Hong Kong. AFP

Yet China has been widely exposed spreading disinformation around the Hong Kong protests – part of what The Guardian described last year as “a worldwide propaganda campaign of astonishing scope and ambition.” Democratic protests in an oppressive regime like China are exactly the type of democracy that needs defending.

The gaming world has been touched by the Hong Kong protests as well: On October 6, professional Hearthstone player Chung Ng Wai won a match in the Hearthstone Grandmasters competition and used a post-game interview to voice his support for protesters. Shortly thereafter, Blizzard removed him from the competition, revoked his winnings, and suspended him from all Hearthstone esports competitions for a year. The broadcasters who interviewed him were also fired.

Why would Blizzard — a Californian company — react so fiercely? The company cited rules meant to prevent players from damaging the company’s image. Support for pro-democracy protests should do wonders for any company’s image in the U.S.; it’s clearly detrimental to the potential market Blizzard sees in China, however.

Upsetting the Apple cart

Silicon Valley is trying to have it both ways, which is creating a real cognitive dissonance around tech today. Most major tech companies are viewed as being liberal, even progressive – hence Republican complaints that Twitter and other social media companies are “censoring” their opinions. This plays well to employees in California and Americans in general – and it clearly means risking upsetting China.

In fact, America’s tech companies have been proven willing time and again to write one policy for the U.S. and a separate one for the dictatorial regime running China. That’s why Google quietly planned a product (now officially canceled) called Dragonfly that would have supported government censorship, and why Facebook built special software to facilitate censorship. For its part, Apple is an enormous proponent of privacy, which the company describes as “a fundamental human right.” Yet the company took heat last year for how this policy is enacted in China, where Apple blocks VPN application use and moved the iCloud data of users to government-owned servers. And pulling the app that’s actively helping the spread of democracy? Come on.


— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) October 10, 2019

So enough is enough. Let’s upset the Apple cart. Silicon Valley should eliminate its double standards, declare its support for Hong Kong, and stand up for the publicly stated beliefs it has written on countless websites. Our richest companies don’t need to get any richer — but they do need to put their money where their mouths are.

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