Apple, Wikileaks and the new debate on civil disobedience
Apple has removed from its iTunes store an app that let people read WikiLeaks’s site and follow its Twitter feed on their iPhones and iPads. The app had been approved only three days earlier, and the move is largely symbolic because anyone with an iPhone or iPad can still access the same content through a Safari or Opera browser.
In doing so, Apple is in some pretty good company in the tech industry. PayPal blocked donations to WikiLeaks and Amazon kicked Wikileaks off of its cloud. And all made their moves for similar reasons: Wikileaks broke the law, and these companies don’t support those who break the law.
There is little question that the release of government documents by Wikileaks was unlawful. The real debate is elsewhere: whether the benefits of leaking the recent State Department documents are larger than the costs; and, more broadly, whether the ideal of free speech is worth breaking laws to uphold. In other words, this is a debate over civil disobedience.
Whatever Wikileaks has accomplished, it’s brought the age-old debate over civil disobedience to the web in a way that will change both for good. In making their moves against Wikileaks, PayPal, Amazon and Apple are throwing themselves into the center of that debate. I think that’s a good thing. What is not such a good thing is the way they are conducting themselves in this debate.
In short, they are taking the easy way out. Maybe Jeff Bezos, John Donahoe and Steve Jobs abhor what Wikileaks is doing, or maybe they support it but feel their businesses should follow other priorities. Either way, we don’t know. These companies are simply hiding behind the dictates of the law, and their silence on the issue only makes the excuses for their actions seem feeble, disingenuous and even a little cowardly.
The move is especially curious in Apple’s case. As some pointed out, the Wikileaks app – which charged $1.99 for access to a free site and claimed to donate half of the money to Wikileaks – violates a little-known clause in Apple’s developer’s agreement concerning charities. But Apple made clear it was pulling the app because it violates laws. In doing so, it caused consternation among those who are both Wikileaks defenders and Apple fanboys. And it made Apple look, yet again, spineless when it comes to supporting free speech.
After a while, this excuse that these companies are just following the law starts to sound hollow. When you found a company that goes on to shape the web, you are in essence signing up for a responsibility that involves taking stands in controversial debates – as Google has done on net neutrality. Google’s views on that subject are famously controversial, but at least it’s taken a stand.
Apple, Amazon and PayPal should do the same. It may complicate relationships with the government, but in the end it is also a marketing issue. Taking a strong stand on either side of this debate will help shape their brands. Staying quiet is leaving many loyal consumers with a feeling of disgust that these companies are underestimating at their own peril.
Update: Some commenters take issue with me saying “There is little question that the release of government documents by Wikileaks was unlawful.” Clearly there is debate on this question, too. That being the case, my hope that these companies address the free-speech debate they have waded into is that much stronger.