The Industry

Is a Tech Company Ever Neutral?

Apple took down an app used by Hong Kong protesters that the Chinese government didn’t like. It’s not the only company enabling oppressive policies—abroad and at home.

Protesters, wearing masks to cover their faces, look at their smartphones.
Protesters gather outside the High Court in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images

Apple stumbled into a new line of business this week: NBA heat shield. On Wednesday, the company booted from its App Store an app called, which protesters in Hong Kong had been using to track police amid the pro-democracy demonstrations against the Chinese government that have engulfed the city for months. In the few days that had been available, it became the most downloaded travel app in Hong Kong, according to the New York Times—until, reportedly, authorities in the special administrative region and Chinese state media complained. The company said it reversed the app’s initial approval because it “violates our guidelines and local laws,” since it was “being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimize individuals and property where no police are present.”

Here’s what actually did: The map app aggregated available data from other social media sources, didn’t show specific locations of individual officers, and had a time lag before data showed up on the app, according to blogger and activist Maciej Ceglowski, who has been in Hong Kong for months. Charles Mok, a legislator in Hong Kong, condemned Apple’s decision, pointing out that the app was being used by residents hoping to avoid tear gas and said that some residents were sharing information about police activity to avoid harassment. Facebook, Twitter, and other iOS apps that are available through the App Store in Hong Kong allow users to do the same thing, Mok said in a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, arguing that Apple’s rationale was spurious and unevenly applied.

The blowback to Apple’s decision has been swift—a rare black eye for a brand that usually only encounters criticism when its new devices are too boring. But unless Apple is able to substantiate its claims about the app being used to facilitate violence—so far, it hasn’t—this appears to be a case of the company giving in, days after the NBA was pilloried for doing the same, to a Chinese government on which it is now deeply reliant. Apple has a multibillion-dollar business in China, makes its phones there, and, like other corporations, generally doesn’t want to piss off the country’s leaders. But coming from a company that has fought for civil liberties at home—remember Apple’s stand for user privacy in the face of the FBI’s demand that it unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone?—its actions in Hong Kong are jarring.

This isn’t the first time Apple has cut against democratic values to benefit the Chinese government. In 2017, it helped to shore up China’s Great Firewall by deleting more than 60 apps used to route around Chinese internet filters. Apple has also removed the New York Times app from China and booted the news site Quartz’s app earlier this week—which Quartz’s chief executive called “government censorship of the internet.” (This week, Google also removed a game from the Google Play after receiving a complaint from Hong Kong police, according to documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal. The game allowed players to take the role of pro-democracy protesters. The company told the Wall Street Journal that the game violated its policies against profiting off “serious ongoing conflicts or tragedies through a game,” and said to Slate that it did not take it down because of request from Hong Kong police.*)

Maybe deleting an app favored by anti-democracy protesters is just the cost of doing business with an authoritarian regime. But it places Apple in uncomfortable company, not just with the NBA—but with other technology firms at home that are currently allowing their innovations to be put to dismaying use by a government client.

Like every government agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses all kinds of technologies to keep track of its work. There are databases, search tools, mobile apps, hosting services, websites, and more. But ICE is the central force behind the Trump administration’s immigration policies, which have increased deportations of people who are parents and noncriminals and people who come to claim relatives that cross the border seeking asylum, have separated parents from their children, and have put some of those children in cages. All of this is done, of course, with the assistance of technological systems that surveil and track people and cross-reference and analyze data.

Among the many people appalled by this are tech CEOs. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, whose father immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba, has vocally opposed the administration’s immigration policies, including when Amazon backed a legal challenge to the Muslim travel ban, in part because Amazon has dozens of employees who come from the countries affected. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was crystal-clear last year in a note he sent to staff, which opened with the declaration: “I am appalled at the abhorrent policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the southern border of the U.S.” Apple’s Tim Cook likewise called the policy of separating families at the border “inhumane” and called for it to end.

The words are one thing. But Amazon and Microsoft, along with others companies like Concur, Dell, and Palantir, have maintained lucrative contracts with ICE under Trump, providing database, hosting, and infrastructure services that power the current immigration policies. Microsoft, for example, inked a $19.4 million contract with ICE in June 2018 for data processing and artificial intelligence analytics. And Amazon’s web services hosts massive databases for the Department of Homeland Security, which ICE is a part of, that are used to track immigrants. Palantir—the data analytics company funded by Peter Thiel, one of President Donald Trump’s most prominent backers in Silicon Valley—recently renewed a contract with ICE that is worth up to $49 million (though the company isn’t pretending to be part of any resistance). Amazon’s cloud services also support Palantir’s ICE products, which were built for the direct purpose of surveilling and apprehending immigrants.

Many of these contracts are now public knowledge because of workers at the companies who have criticized their employers publicly in the hopes of spurring them to drop ICE. In response to employee protests, Microsoft issued a statement saying the company wasn’t aware of how its products and services were being used to separate children from their families, despite boasting that it was “proud to support” ICE and that its software allows ICE to “utilize deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification” of immigrants in a blog post just a few months prior. Amazon told reporters in response to employee protests over its ICE contracts that, “As we’ve said many times and continue to believe strongly, companies and government organizations need to use existing and new technology responsibly and lawfully.”

Just this week, employees at GitHub, who had been meeting with executives for months to convince the software development platform to drop its contract with ICE, signed a letter castigating the Microsoft subsidiary for continuing to license a version of its software to ICE. CEO Nat Friedman argued that just as Microsoft licenses Microsoft Word to anyone without monitoring what they do with it, “we believe it would be wrong for GitHub to demand that software developers tell us what they are using our tools to do.” GitHub also promised to donate $500,000 to organizations that support immigrants targeted under the Trump administration’s policies. The employees responded with another letter, “There is no donation that can offset the harm that ICE is perpetrating with the help of our labor.”

The defenses across all of these companies, from ICE contracts to Apple’s App Store moderation, are all in a similar key: They’re just doing business and following the laws of the countries they’re operating in.

Taking all of this in, I couldn’t help but think of IBM’s work with Nazi Germany, not because what Apple or Microsoft has done compares to facilitating genocide—of course it doesn’t—but because of how they justify this work as being valid uses of neutral products. From about 1933 to 1945, IBM provided custom punch-card technology, training, technical services, and equipment to the Nazi government. When the American public voiced outrage over this work in 1940, the company’s president, Thomas Watson, returned a medal that Adolf Hitler had awarded to him—but IBM continued to expand its work with the Nazis through its Dutch subsidiary in the years that followed. After the war, IBM was able to secure its machines and massive profits from Germany. IBM knew how to say the right thing to the public while keeping its lucrative contracts, contracts that did not violate the laws in the country it was operating in.

Technology companies brand themselves as producing neutral tools. Microsoft has argued that its services for ICE are used for things like email. Apple is just following its App Store guidelines, as it would with any other app. Amazon is providing web hosting to immigration agencies just as it would for a baseball Little League team. (Amazon made a similar argument this week about its work with fossil fuel companies.) This all might feel reasonable to those who argue that not providing web services to one government agency opens the doors to Amazon or Microsoft not providing web hosting to immigration reform activists in turn. It might make sense to those who imply, as GitHub’s CEO seemed to, that their services are like items that are bought off a store shelf and they can’t control who uses them.

Yes, all markets require a level of privacy in order to operate. You can’t know the political leaning of everyone you buy a sandwich from. Vendors can decide what they do or don’t want to disclose or ask of their customers. But when they do know, they have no obligation to proceed with that business. Activists and tech critics sometimes use the word complicit when talking about companies that look the other way when their inventions are causing harm. Assistive might be more accurate. Providing database and web services—even just email—to a cruel immigration regime assists in the cruelty. Censoring an app that’s popular with protesters because the Chinese government doesn’t like it may be harming those protesters. These companies can do what they want with the software they sell. But they should stop pretending that what they sell is neutral.

Correction, Oct. 14, 2019: This article originally said, citing now-corrected reporting from the Wall Street Journal, that Google removed a game at the request of Hong Kong police. Although Google had received the complaint, it said it had flagged the game internally and didn’t take it down as a result of a request from police.