Apple is still making it hard to think differently

Apple has banned apps that refer to the Dalai Lama and Uighur activist, Rebiya Kadeer

Apple, which famously fashioned itself as a friend of rebels and freethinkers, has once again taken the side of censors and autocrats. Lured by profits, the company is doing the bidding of the Chinese government by banning iPhone and iPad apps in China's App Store.

The latest instance came in late October, when Apple pulled the Free Weibo app from the App Store in China. Free Weibo was designed to allow people to read censored comments on China's popular microblogging platform, Sina Weibo. Sina Weibo is a frequent target of censorship. For example, when the Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei, used the site to ask people to post information about the disastrous 2008 Sichuan earthquake, his messages were deleted and his account pulled.

Earlier in October, Apple banned the OpenDoor app, which allowed iOS users to bypass the Great Firewall of China, a facetious name given to a very serious effort to stop people inside China from visiting sites the government doesn't want them to see.

Going back further, Apple has banned apps that refer to the Dalai Lama and Uighur activist, Rebiya Kadeer, as well as a news app by New Tang Dynasty Television, a satellite broadcaster based in the U.S. that was founded by Falun Gong members.

The banning of apps that mention the Dalai Lama is particularly ironic, given that Apple featured a photo of him in its well-known "Think Different" marketing campaign. That campaign praised "The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.... They push the human race forward.... The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."

But one of them stands in the way of Apple's profits. So goodbye, Dalai Lama.

Apple would do well to follow the examples set by Yahoo and Google. Several years ago, Google decided it would no longer censor its search results in China after attacks emanating from there targeted the Google and Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Google's chief legal officer, David Drummond, explained in a blog post: "These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered -- combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web -- have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China.... We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China." Google has indeed suffered financially from the decision. But it recognized that sometimes moral obligations trump the absolutely fattest profits.

Yahoo went through an even more wrenching time. In 2004, its Hong Kong unit turned over information from the email accounts of two dissidents to Chinese authorities, and as a result both men were jailed. During congressional hearings in 2007, Yahoo co-founder and then CEO Jerry Yang apologized to the families, and the company later settled suits with them. Yahoo has since co-founded with Google the Global Network Initiative, which tries to protect Internet freedom around the world.

During the 2007 hearings, the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the late California Democrat Tom Lantos, told Yang and Yahoo's general counsel, Michael Callahan, "Much of this testimony reveals that while technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies."

The same can be said about Apple today. It's time for the company to live up to its self-created image as the friend of all those who think differently than governments want them to.

Preston Gralla is a Computerworld.com contributing editor and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Read more about management in Computerworld's Management Topic Center.

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