When it comes to respecting cultural norms, it can be difficult to walk the line between transparency and oppression. For years, foreign companies have struggled to balance supporting user rights against respecting local law. Digital totalitarian states like China and Saudi Arabia are known for forcing foreign companies to adhere to their strict—and often oppressive—requirements in order to operate within their borders.
But times are changing, and Western companies are becoming increasingly active in countries where their services were once banned. As more American companies vie for international audiences, a recurring problem emerges: Do they bow to the whim of totalitarians and censor content based on those states’ laws, or do they follow their core principles and miss out on some of the most lucrative markets in the world?
Google: A Cautionary Tale of Objectivity
In 2010, Google officially closed its popular search engine in China after the company traced several cyberattacks to the Chinese government. These attacks included mining the Gmail addresses of Chinese human rights activists.
After Google shut down its China search engine, its market share in the region plummeted. This move not only hurt Google’s public image, it sent a caustic message to all Western companies: Either play by China’s rules, or accept that you might not be allowed to play at all.
Now, with more than 800 million daily internet users, China has become the world’s biggest online audience, and companies like Apple, Netflix, and Airbnb are just some of the names that have been caught between an oppressive government and its citizens.
Foreign Companies and China: A Problematic Partnership
China’s Great Firewall goes far beyond simply blocking certain sites; the Communist government has a long history of punishing any company that interferes with its restrictions. It comes as no surprise, then, that more Western tech companies are actively helping China censor the internet than ever before.
In August 2019, Apple pulled more than 25,000 apps from the App Store after the Chinese government deemed these apps as “illegal.” Among those affected were all major VPN apps (virtual private networks), which are widely used to circumvent the Great Firewall’s censorship.
And then there was the issue of gambling and lottery apps. Because these sites are illegal in China, Apple was quick to heed the government’s warning and removed every lottery app in its store.
“We have already removed many apps and developers for trying to distribute illegal gambling apps on our App Store, and we are vigilant in our efforts to find these and stop them from being on the App Store,” Apple said in a statement.
By restricting access to the outside internet, China was effectively keeping its citizens in the dark—and Apple has been actively helping.
Censoring More Than Just Apps
But the censorship doesn’t stop there, nor does it only include China. Earlier this year, Netflix came under fire for agreeing to pull an episode of Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj, an original American comedy series, in Saudi Arabia after the show included a critical breakdown of the recent murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In a public statement, Netflix said it had removed the episode because the company “received a valid legal demand from the government—and to comply with local law.”
Of course, removing an episode from a specific region doesn’t actually mean the episode is unavailable. In fact, millions of Saudis were quick to use a VPN for Netflix to eagerly view the banned episode. Additionally, Netflix’s content censorship didn’t extend to YouTube, where views surged.
In Russia, the encrypted app Telegram was banned after the company refused to hand over user data to government authorities. In addition to blocking VPNs, the government has censored various social networking sites, the most popular being LinkedIn in 2016.
Companies Are Actively Complying With China’s Data Localization Laws
But while actively censoring media and removing content is one thing, working with foreign governments to collect, sell, and profit off user data is a whole other beast.
Unfortunately, companies like Evernote and Airbnb are in constant contact with foreign government entities, compiling and sending off customer data on a massive scale.
In Evernote’s case, the California-based mobile task app already announced plans to migrate all its data to Tencent, a Chinese-owned tech company best known for owning WeChat. With more than 220 million users (4 million in China), the company has a hefty repository of user data, which it is willingly and unabashedly handing over to the Chinese authorities.
The popular social aggregation site Reddit has also come under scrutiny in recent months after the company confirmed rumors that it had raised more than $150 million from Chinese investors. Users were enraged to hear that the site, which was built on free speech, had begun accepting foreign funds. Posters began uploading images of Tiananmen Square in protest.
Storing Private Consumer Data on Foreign Servers
Following intense pressure from the Chinese government, Airbnb made the decision to store all of its China-based user data on local servers. By agreeing to this, the online hospitality service effectively gave the Chinese government the ability to easily keep tabs on its users.
With an increasingly competitive market and room for growth, Airbnb likely choose to comply with the government in order to boost its customer base. Already, the company has signed contracts with local authorities in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Chongqing, and Guangzhou.
But Airbnb isn’t the only company to store its data on state-run servers; Apple’s iCloud partner also actively stores its data on China’s state-run Telecom service. Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD) handles all of China’s Apple management services, and although iCloud data is end-to-end encrypted by default, the encryption keys, coincidentally, are also stored in China.
This has left many privacy advocates skeptical about whether Apple users’ data in China is actually private, or if it’s simply collected and stored under government protocol.
Search Engine Censorship at Home and Abroad
Google may be the biggest search engine in the West, but it’s struggling for a piece of the pie in China. While the service itself is still banned, Google has been working closely with the Chinese government to offer a watered-down and state-approved search engine. In fact, Project Dragonfly, which was unveiled in 2018, is a new search engine that is specifically designed to conform to China’s stringent web restrictions.
While the project had been nothing more than a rumor for years, news of its development left many employees at the company feeling betrayed—especially given the fact that John Hennessy, Alphabet chairman, had once chastised similar companies for working with the Communist government.
“Anybody who does business in China compromises some of their core values. Every single company, because the laws in China are quite a bit different than they are in our own country,” Hennessy once said.
Bing, which is owned by Microsoft, is another Western search engine that’s been accused of working hand in hand with the Chinese government. In fact, there have been numerous reports highlighting drastically different search engine results for China and for the rest of the world. Potentially sensitive subjects like the Dalai Lama, Bo Xilai, and the Tiananmen massacre are all but nonexistent for the Chinese-language site, regardless of where the user is located.
A Cacophony of Controversy
In Saudi Arabia, Silicon Valley is eager to have a hand in the budding online marketplace. But as local laws and restrictions suggest, companies need to abide by local rules or risk being banned altogether.
Foreign companies like WeWork and Tesla are struggling to come to terms with recent political outcries while maintaining a dominant presence in the region. Other companies are working to help navigate cultural differences. With Uber setting up shop in Saudi Arabia, the ride-sharing service has already announced plans to hire some 10,000 female drivers.
The growing trend of subservience toward foreign governments doesn’t bode well for the public—at home and abroad.
With Europe’s recent adoption of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and to a lesser extent California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), countries and individual states are beginning to diverge in how they deal with data online. And instead of having a single internet used throughout the world, the Wi-Fi of the future could be broken down into segments, sections, and fragments.
Do foreign companies have an obligation to speak up for their individual core values, or are they morally (and contractually) obliged to conform with the social and political norms as they vary per region? Only time will tell.