Profit over principle: Apple appeases the Kremlin

Profit over principle: Apple appeases the Kremlin

An armed man, believed to be a Russian soldier, stands on guard outside a military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean city of Simferopol, March 21, 2014. Russian shares fell sharply on Friday as investors took fright at tougher than expected U.S. sanctions against President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle over Moscow’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov (UKRAINE – Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)

Apple recently altered the labeling on its weather and map apps to show Crimea as part of the Russian Federation for users inside Russia. An outcry duly ensued. Days later, the tech giant announced it would take “a deeper look” at its policies concerning disputed areas. Whatever that means.

Frankly, Apple should never have capitulated in the first
place. There is no grey area here: Crimea is Ukrainian, not Russian. The seizure
of Crimea took place in spring 2014 and was contrary to international law and existing
treaties. The so-called “little green men” behind the takeover were actually
Russian military personnel, and it was under their watchful eye that a sham
plebiscite was staged in order to justify the annexation.

The United Nations, United
States, and European Union all condemned this act of international aggression.
Serious sanctions have been imposed on Russia ever since. Last month, the
International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that it has jurisdiction to
hear Ukraine’s allegations against Russia regarding Moscow’s occupation of
Crimea and the Kremlin’s role in eastern Ukraine.

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Apple was not the first global tech giant to cave in to Russian demands. In March 2019, Google revised its maps in a similar fashion. Changes were only visible to those viewing from inside the Russian Federation. Outside Russia, Crimea remained Ukrainian. Touted as a compromise, this was actually a cop-out. Publishing such “Potemkin” maps is unacceptable. They are inaccurate and designed to spread disinformation and propaganda. Such moves are part of Russian attempts to “normalize” its lawlessness.

Apple says it came under sustained pressure from Russia on the basis that, according to Russian law, it is a criminal act to refer to Crimea as anything other than Russian territory. The tech company’s explanation of its recent actions fell short of satisfactory when it stated, “We review international law as well as relevant US and other domestic laws before making a determination in labeling on our maps and make changes if required by law.”

Obviously not. Russia flouted international law by seizing Crimea. Russia stole billions, if not trillions, from Ukraine by taking Crimea. Apple’s decision was not about upholding laws but about avoiding threatened legal action. Furthermore, Apple and Google had a choice. Map labeling is about curating and providing accurate information, not about choosing sides. When dealing with a region subject to contesting claims, the labeling could indicate this status. That would have been a more acceptable compromise, but Apple and Google chose otherwise.

dissident and ex-world chess champion Garry Kasparov pulled no punches when he condemned
the company in a tweet: “Apple changing its maps inside Russia to make
Crimea part of Russia is a huge scandal. Regionalization of facts is
unacceptable appeasement. Software is soft power. American tech companies
should stand up for the values of innovation that made their success possible,
not bow down to dictators for a little extra cash they don’t even need.”

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What has bowing
to Russian demands actually achieved? It has allowed these vast companies to maintain
their foothold in a relatively small market the size of the Texas economy. At
the same time, their actions tarnish them and represent a slippery slope
globally. Consider that, since 2014, Russia has illegally occupied Ukraine’s
nearby Donbas region. Over 13,000 have died, with a further 1.6 million people displaced.
Will Apple and Google alter their maps once more if Moscow passes another law declaring
it a criminal act to refer to Donbas as part
of Ukraine? What will Apple do if
China, a genuinely gigantic market, insists its maps label independent and
sovereign Taiwan as a province of the People’s Republic of China?

China has already begun throwing its considerable weight around with tech multinationals. In the past few years, it has virtually shut out Twitter, Google, and Facebook from the Chinese domestic market for not acceding to censorship requirements and other questionable requests. Apple still operates in China, and in October 2019 removed an app used by protesters in Hong Kong to identify police movements. This appeasement was justified by Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook as a “decision [that] best protects our users.” Can maps labeling Taiwan or disputed South China Sea islands as part of China be far away?

In 2017, Apple’s Cook spoke frankly about the pitfalls of operating in countries without the rule of law. His comments were instructive: “Each country in the world decides their laws and their regulations, and so your choice is: Do you participate? Or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be? You get in the arena, because nothing ever changes from the sideline.” Of course, once you have agreed to enter the arena on the ringmaster’s terms, it means that nothing will ever actually change. As an Apple and Google shareholder, I find this approach deeply disappointing. It is sad to see Silicon Valley’s hegemons, bigger and richer than most nation-states, stooping to threats from thugs and putting profit ahead of principle.

Diane Francis is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, Editor at Large with the National Post in Canada, a Distinguished Professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, and author of ten books.

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