Big Tech has a Saudi Arabia Problem: Apple's Hypocrisy

Saying goodbye to my iPhone will be the hardest. I admire Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO for voicing strong support for a national data protection law (which I called for 2 blog posts ago in Facebook’s Gone FUD), and I’m glad someone in Big Tech finally said “our own information is being weaponized against us with military efficiency.”

Many colleagues are giving Tim Cook flack however, because it’s fairly easy for him to say this: Apple doesn’t rely on ads for its main business and it limits the data it collects on users. Still, he’s right on the money in calling out Facebook and Google for their hacking scandals, and for describing how much of the online ad industry is now, surveillance. All our personal data is only serving to enrich the companies that collect it.

When Tim took a swipe at rivals in his extraordinary speech “who claim to support rules but lobby behind closed doors to weaken any initiative” well there it was; what used to smell like lobbyists to me is now out in broad daylight. Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have all backed some version of a new privacy law so now we’ll be looking to you Congress, not the lobbyists, for clear legislation similar to Europe’s GDPR - under which Facebook currently faces a fine of as much as $1.63 BILLION.

Did you hear me Congress, Mr. President and my new friend Ivanka? The CEO of Apple agrees we need GDPR like I said two weeks ago; when you need someone other than Political Lobbyists to explain that to you, call in the Internet Specialists.

Apple advocating for privacy is definitely two steps forward, so why are they preparing to take one big step back? According to The New York Times, the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has shifted Saudi Arabia’s investment attention from Wall Street to Silicon Valley and Big Tech is jumping… high.

The “Saudi Public Investment Fund” has put $45 billion into a technology fund run by SoftBank and reportedly plans to invest $45 billion more. My colleagues are asking, why does Big Tech want to add a medieval theocracy that still beheads by sword to the criticism they are already facing? Why would Big Tech want to go along with a Saudi narrative and become a reputation-laundering machine for one of the least admirable regimes on earth?

Money. The sheer amount of it offered by Saudi Arabia is unprecedented and to some founders, irresistible. In fact, the kingdom is now the largest single funding source for U.S. start-ups. But Silicon Valley’s morals and idealism in exchange for short-term profits won’t mix well with tyranny. There’s a NetLingo word for it: wild ducks. summed it up: Doing business with tyrants is not only morally the wrong thing to do, it’s economically stupid. 

Investment in Saudi Arabia will prove controversial for Apple. With its draconian form of sharia law, Saudi Arabia’s autocratic government is consistently rated among “the worst of the worst” human rights offenders. Its gender apartheid system treats women as second-class citizens, shrouded in fabric, dependent on male chaperones, and barred from going out alone and from any form of public life. The country has notoriously strict anti-LGBT laws as opposed to Apple's pro-LGBT stances in the U.S. and elsewhere. There’s no freedom of religion. The press is censored. They're covering up the killing of one of their own nationals in their own embassy, allegedly sawing his limbs off and desolving him in acid. Brutal, public floggings and stonings are the penalty for committing adultery. Those arrested are routinely tortured to extract confessions. They've jailed the country's elite inside the Ritz Carlton, for years. Last year, Saudi Arabia put to death 146 people for crimes including murder and drug dealing; most of the executions were beheadings. Not to mention the U.S.-backed military campaign in neighboring Yemen which is killing thousands and putting millions of people at risk of starvation, including whatever else we don't know...? It's not worth it.

Tim, if you really want to throw the privacy rule book at your rivals, then begin by removing Google’s search engine as the default search on Apple devices. We know Apple collects more than $5 BILLION dollars a year in “licensing fees” from Google, so put your money where your mouth is and start there. And good luck with opening your new Apple store over there next year, but don’t let your wild ducks get tamed by Saudi money, because if you do, I’ll go back to Dell.

- Erin Jansen, Internet Specialist, Social Psychologist, Founder of
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