Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for November 28th, 2019

From Garages to Geopolitical Quagmires

This Crimea situation is a real shitshow. And so is Apple’s response to it.

Last night, I oversimplified my reaction to Apple’s compliance with Russia’s requirement that maps display Crimea as Russian territory when those maps are viewed in Russia. There’s some subtlety that I neglected to dive into that doesn’t change my objection to Apple’s acquiescence, but helps provide some clarity on why it is objectionable.

The first thing to know is that Apple is not unique in how it recognizes Crimea and disputed territory elsewhere. Google has a similar policy, even saying to Tass, a Russian news agency, that they “fixed a bug” that indicated Crimea was Ukrainian territory. This is similar to the obviously misleading language used by Russia to describe Apple’s change yesterday. Here WeGo — originally developed by Nokia before being spun off as its own company — shows Crimean addresses as Russian when browsing from within Russia, and Ukrainian when browsing elsewhere.

But other mapping software still retains Ukraine’s territorial claim over Crimea, even when browsing using a Russian proxy, including Microsoft’s Bing Maps. OpenStreetMap — used by Facebook, Foursquare, and others — seems to take a middle-ground approach with Crimean addresses shown as being within Ukraine, but with a border around the entire peninsula as though it’s its own country.

This is also a situation that is not entirely unique to Ukraine, Russia, and Crimea. Maps with countries and cities and borders are inherently political — it’s right there in the name — and there are dozens of disputes over borders and sovereignty all around the world. The display of this disputed land is handled differently depending on mapping software and region but, due to the nature of things that are location dependent, this is devilishly difficult to test. I am still not entirely confident in what I found. For example, the region of Kashmir displays in Apple Maps and Google Maps on my iPad as disputed territories; but, if I use Google Maps on the web and switch its region to India, it becomes solidly Indian. A 1961 law prohibits making maps of India that are incongruous with the one made by the Survey of India, so I imagine that Apple’s map would follow suit — but I cannot verify that.

I haven’t mentioned Israel and Palestine which, suffice to say, as Jon Stewart once put it, is a “bottomless cup of sadness”.

So it’s not a situation that is specific to Apple’s maps app, nor is it specific to Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory. But it remains one of several recent examples of tyrannical leaders wielding influence over American tech companies to further their propaganda campaigns. Apple and Google have little choice but to comply with the laws of the regions in which they operate, no matter how authoritarian.

But they would also not be forced to be used as vehicles for disinformation if they chose not to operate within countries that require such compliance. This doesn’t have to be a wholesale withdrawal. Apple doesn’t have to include Weather or Maps on iPhones sold in Russia, for example; Google has the ability to prevent its own maps app from being accessed from within the country. I’m not saying that either company should do this, and I’m sure this solution was at least suggested at both and was clearly shot down for reasons not publicly known.

This also becomes vastly more difficult when it comes to Apple’s relationship with Chinese authorities. In August, Google’s Project Zero team announced that iOS vulnerabilities that were patched earlier in the year were actively exploited. Reporters put together the clues and established that the Chinese government was likely responsible for hacking into websites that targeted the oppressed Uyghur population. But Apple’s response mostly nitpicked Google’s description and did not acknowledge the real damage these security bugs caused. Did they worry about whether their Chinese manufacturing facilities would be impacted by a more complete response that acknowledged the damage these vulnerabilities inflicted upon Uyghurs? I don’t know, but it’s awfully concerning that it’s a question that can reasonably be asked. If this was a worry, I maintain that Apple ought to have stayed silent and let press reports do the talking — but that is a last-ditch option that is only slightly more preferable than a complete response. Their purely defensive response was misleading, weak, and capitulating.

Quite simply, any company operating worldwide must set a line that it will not cross. There cannot be limitless ethical bending to appease an audience of countries ranging from liberal democracies to ruthless authoritarian states. Otherwise, products and services will morph from tools for customers into tools for dictators. There is unambiguous precedence.

I’m sure the founders of today’s tech giants did not consider any of this in their nascent days spent in proverbial Silicon Valley garages. Nevertheless, they must respect their responsibility now.