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Tim Cook’s Magnum Opus

Four essential rights (and wrongs): Apple says it has a will, but it needs a way

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Leading from the front or back?

In case you missed it, Apple CEO Tim Cook delivered a rousing speech in Europe about consumer data privacy last week. From TechCrunch:

Cook argued for a US privacy law to prioritize four things:

1. data minimization — “the right to have personal data minimized”, saying companies should “challenge themselves” to de-identify customer data or not collect it in the first place

2. transparency — “the right to knowledge”, saying users should “always know what data is being collected and what it is being collected for, saying it’s the only way to “empower users to decide what collection is legitimate and what isn’t”. “Anything less is a shame,” he added

3. the right to access — saying companies should recognize that “data belongs to users”, and it should be made easy for users to get a copy of, correct and delete their personal data

4. the right to security — saying “security is foundational to trust and all other privacy rights”

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His speech was a laudable call-to-arms that felt like a culmination of Apple’s multiyear consumer-rights campaign, which began in earnest upon Cook’s standoff with the FBI in early-2016. That said, it’s hard for anyone to know whether Cook is being:

  1. sincere and naive; or
  2. deceitful and calculating

…but it has to be one or the other. At face value, his idealism is virtuous, but its virtue is overrun by the fact that it’s also a straw man — even though, to reiterate, it’s hard for anyone to know whether or not that’s intentional on Cook’s part…

Being right, not sounding right

The privacy problems Tim Cook is discussing are a populist stance, but the tradeoffs required to attain them wouldn’t be as popular — were they not to have gone so notably unmentioned. In stark contrast to Cook, others were there in attendance to level appeals more grounded in realism, including European GDPR’s caretaker (of all people!):

Opening the conference before the Apple CEO took to the stage, Europe’s data protection supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli argued that digitization is driving a new generational shift in the respect for privacy — saying there is an urgent need for regulators and indeed societies to agree on and establish “a sustainable ethics for a digitised society”…

The so-called ‘privacy paradox’ is not that people have conflicting desires to hide and to expose. The paradox is that we have not yet learned how to navigate the new possibilities and vulnerabilities opened up by rapid digitization…

“To cultivate a sustainable digital ethics, we need to look, objectively, at how those technologies have affected people in good ways and bad…”

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If Cook were chiding the global community to innovate harder and faster in order to reach some more-perfect state, then great — let his rally cry motivate us to get to work. If Apple itself had achieved some more-perfect state, then, again, great — let’s implement the measures Cook and Apple can provide as an open playbook. Yet, neither is what he’s saying. On one hand, he has not agitated for innovation; on the other hand, Apple’s modus operandi presents its own fundamental tradeoffs — its own foibles. There is no panacea.

Goes without saying that the matter of privacy is an important prerogative. But, for incumbents and upstarts alike, privacy isn’t always a question of will. It’s not generally as simple as choosing to walk-over and pick some low-hanging fruit, as has been implied by the entire narrative Apple has spun-up for itself.

Each of Tim Cook’s aforementioned “four essential rights” are straw men — obfuscating either their tradeoffs, preexisiting industry standards, (mis)perception vs reality, or Apple’s own moral hazard:

How transparent is Cook being with consumers and the global community about the inherent tradeoffs of his privacy vision? How transparent is he being about Apple’s own hypocrisies, its own conflicts of interest, including:

  1. ceding user privacy in China;
  2. App Store impunity;
  3. principal-agent problems;
  4. double-speak about advertising despite its massive TAC revenue from advertisers (blood diamonds?);
  5. structural competitive disadvantages; or
  6. post-hoc security patches that close-the-barn-door-when-the-horses-are-already-in-the-next-county a la Facebook/Cambridge Analytica

To be clear, most of these wouldn’t bother me as much were Cook and Apple not thumbing-their-nose at everyone else — as if they’re holier-than-thou. And the hypocrisy of it all doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that they’re strip-mining goodwill. And, ultimately, their financial fares are but a small distraction compared to the fool’s errand toward which they’re diverting society.

The righteous path

To truly become society’s advocate, Tim Cook can start by providing solutions for the problems presented in the last tweet above, including defining and differentiating:

  1. Reasonably forseen vs unforseen risks;
  2. Where platforms' responsibilities end vs users' responsibilities begin

Draw bright lines to establish an objective basis for some of privacy, censorship, and cybersecurity’s most vexing philosophical quandaries. Without such constructive problem-solving, his grandstanding seems like (at best) diffusion of responsibility and (at worst) willful ignorance of Apple’s own regulatory arbitrages. Leading from the back instead of the front.

In the absence of such solutions, Cook is a proponent of the very chicanery he himself denounced in his speech:

[Cook] also made a sideswipe at tech industry efforts to defang privacy laws — saying that some companies will “endorse reform in public and then resist and undermine it behind closed doors”.

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Really, I’m perplexed by the riddle-wrapped-in-a-paradox-wrapped-in-an-enigma that is Cook’s assertion of the following:

[P]rivacy is a fundamental human right. No matter what country you live in, that right should be protected[.]

Yet Apple continues to operate in China, where it not only abets the Chinese government’s violations of citizens’ privacy rights, but also remains the only major US tech company that hasn’t withdrawn from the region. One of Cook’s favorite punching-bags, Google, made a loud and principled exit from China for this very reason way back in 2010!

There’s undoubtedly some existential change afoot at Apple. Again, we can speculate as to what motivates Cupertino’s privacy campaign, but nobody can know for sure. Are they trying to accrue goodwill to make a push into healthcare? Kicking competitors while they’re down? Virtue signaling? Trying to kickstart a renaissance?

Maybe even Tim Cook himself cannot tap into his own heart-of-hearts, but one thing is for sure: brute-forcing change by means of rhetoric without acknowledging the externalities is politics — not civics.

One more thing…

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Anthony Bardaro

Anthony Bardaro

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away...” 👉