Apple and CEO Tim Cook have always branded the company as fundamentally different than its competitors on privacy. iOS devices collect and use less data on their users than companies like Google and are generally considered more secure than their Android equivalents, and the company has been loudly tooting its own horn on the matter as it introduces competing services like Apple sign-in for third-party sites. Apple and Cook have also been more aggressive fighting hate speech and misinformation, banning conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and making clear their view that Big Tech needs to do more.
In a commencement speech at Stanford on Sunday, Cook took this approach to the next level, accusing certain Silicon Valley companies of operating as a “chaos factory” and of refusing to take responsibility for what they have created. Though he didn’t name names, Cook took a fairly clear potshot at failed blood testing startup Theranos and referred to issues that have plagued companies like Facebook and YouTube.
“Lately it seems this industry is becoming better known for a less noble innovation—the belief you can claim credit without accepting responsibility,” Cook told the Stanford graduates. “We see it every day now with every data breach, every privacy violation, every blind eye turned to hate speech, fake news poisoning our national conversation, the false miracles in exchange for a single drop of your blood.”
“Too many seem to think that good intentions excuse away harmful outcomes,” Cook said. “But whether you like it or not, what you build and what you create define who you are. It feels a bit crazy that anyone should have to say this, but if you built a chaos factory, you can’t dodge responsibility for the chaos.”
Cook added that the lack of privacy and digital surveillance endemic to the tech world today would have “stopped Silicon Valley before it got started” and “If we accept as normal and unavoidable that everything in our lives can be aggregated, sold and even leaked in the event of a hack, then we lose so much more than data. We lose the freedom to be human.”
The CEO’s advice to graduates: “... At the very least, learn from these mistakes. If you want to take credit, first learn to take responsibility.”
Apple, of course, has its own fair share of issues. It’s been accused of anticompetitive business practices and censorship on its App Store and is fighting an antitrust class action lawsuit in court. It has minimized its tax burden by capitalising on loopholes and tax shelters, as well as faced allegations of horrific working conditions in its Chinese supply chain (though it has reportedly made progress on the latter issue). It’s also complied with China’s censorhip and data storage laws rather than lose access to its lucrative market.
As the Atlantic noted earlier this year, Apple has “considerably better policies [on privacy] than its more data-hungry competitors,” but still profits off of those competitors via its app-store model. Last year, Gizmodo colleague Rhett Jones pointed out:
If Apple is giving Facebook and Google headaches, we say that’s great. But it’s a thorny issue when we’re talking about a few billion-dollar companies exchanging places on the ladder as they strive to be trillion-dollar companies. It’s just not enough for the least bad megacorp to keep the evil ones in check. Free markets really don’t police themselves, as the telecoms clearly demonstrate with their practice of tolerating each other’s mini-monopolies.
On the other hand, Apple isn’t faking blood tests, ignoring human rights groups’ pleas to stop enabling genocide, actively creating algorithmic “extremist rabbit holes” to juice up engagement, working on a secret censor-friendly search engine, or getting caught red-handed on its secretive military drone AI projects. So perhaps Cook has a bit of a point here—or at least the most effective brand rhetoric.