Was Apple right to accede to Beijing’s VPN crackdown?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, basically I defend Apple.  Here is one excerpt:

Those remarks are unfair to Apple, which in difficult circumstances probably did the right thing. China has already shown Facebook Inc. and Google parent Alphabet Inc. that it is willing to do without their services. How would it help the world to have Apple join that list, either partially or in full? I don’t approve of Chinese censorship, but the VPNs are in fact illegal. It hardly seems unreasonable for a major company to follow the laws of the country it is operating in, even if those laws are unjust or imprudent.

Go back to the banned status of Bloomberg View in China, which is also a ban on some of my writings. (My educational videos are also blocked because they are on YouTube.) Does that mean I should stop having my books translated into Chinese, or that I should refuse to speak at Chinese universities, on the grounds that they do not present all of my written product? No, hardly anyone behaves that way, nor should they. I prefer to try to communicate with the Chinese — including listening to and learning from them — as much as I plausibly can.

There is much more at the link.


The difference is you have no market power. Few care if they can't access Tyler Cowen stuff. Had Apple refused China's VPN crackdown, it may have potentially had the effect of forcing China to accede instead. Still probably not likely, but that is the obvious reason your analogy does not work. The real question is whether it is or should be Apple's responsibility to attempt to do so.

Apple is not China's mom. And Steve Jobs tried to sell the Soviet Union computers.

China's leadership today places a high priority on order and stability (following centuries of alternating cycles of prosperity and instability), which at one time were conservative priorities in America. One might respond that order and stability must be subordinate to individual freedom, but that wasn't the conservative view in America until just recently, when disruption ascended to the top priority. I think the jury is still out on the relative benefits of disruption. In the meantime, it's instructive to observe the contrasting views and consequences in America and China.

Meanwhile, Verizon has expanded its data mining efforts in the months since Trump, Congress rolled back the FCC's privacy rules.


I won't make a policy recommendation, just the observation that these Chinese and US changes are both sub-optimal for the consumer.

Mein kampf was not banned in Germany. The Bavarian state owned the copyright to the book and did not publish it. Now hitler is dead long enough so the copyright expired. (source: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35209185)

It was still published in the US before then, and Amazon was pressured not to sell it in Germany, for legal and PR reasons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mein_Kampf#Online_availability

'Amazon was pressured not to sell it in Germany, for legal and PR reasons'

Yes, the German copyright owner did not want it sold in Germany. As noted below, the same applied to how Amazon wiped a non-copyright owner authorized edition of 1984 from all American Kindles.

And currently, as can also be seen below, Amazon is selling Mein Kampf, in Germany, for €59, with free shipping.

Maybe instead of older information, you could have read literally the next section of that wikipedia article - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mein_Kampf#2016_republication_in_Germany - 'An annotated edition of Mein Kampf was published in Germany in January 2016 and sold out within hours on Amazon's German site.'

> Yes, the German copyright owner did not want it sold in Germany.

This is the most convoluted justification I've ever seen for such censorship. If a government owns a copyright (through its own laws of ownership), sets its duration, and refuses to allow its publication, that's just censorship with extra steps. "Oh, I can't let that happen because of rules I also control."

"Does that mean I should stop having my books translated into Chinese, or that I should refuse to speak at Chinese universities, on the grounds that they do not present all of my written product?"

No, but I would hope that you would refrain from altering the content of your books, speeches, and Bloomberg View columns just to make them acceptable to Chinese censors. Apple has essentially altered the content of its app store on behalf of Chinese censors.

Also, VPNs are not illegal under natural law nor are Chinese censorhip laws legitimate. Diplomatic legitimacy, which determines which government represents China in diplomatic matters (participates in international bodies, makes treaties, staffs embassies, etc.), is different from legitimacy to govern, which derives from popular consent and use of powers to secure natural rights.

'No, but I would hope that you would refrain from altering the content of your books, speeches, and Bloomberg View columns just to make them acceptable to Chinese censors.'

Please, such pious pining for backbone in defending human liberty is either the basest sort of mood affiliation, or a desperate attempt at virtue signalling.

@BC Thank You for having some virtue to signal.

Tyler doesn't have to censor himself for China. He can just be extra-Straussian.

"is different from legitimacy to govern, which derives from popular consent and use of powers to secure natural rights."
The Chinese seem to disagree.

By "the Chinese," I presume you mean the small minority that make up the communist party, have all the guns, and are willing to shoot anyone who challenges them, right?

Would you demand a restaurant franchise refuse to operate in Saudi Arabia, because "we won't change the content of our menu?"

...if their menu included alcohol?

Interesting point - India and McDonald's not serving beef would be another example.

Except that no actual principle is involved. McDonald's does not serve alcohol in America either, though in Germany, McDonald's does.

The point of using a VPN in China is to be able to beat the Great Firewall. Not serving alcohol in a country like the U.S. or Saudi Arabia is simply not the same as denying people living an essentially totalitarian society any chance to escape their master's control.

A better comparison could be found in the application of Ostpolitik in an existing geopolitical situation involving two very different conceptions of how societies should be run - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ostpolitik Spoiler alert - Stasi lost, in part because the East German government could not stop Western broadcast media from being accessed by its citizens.

'basically I defend Apple'

Of course you did.

'but the VPNs are in fact illegal'

According to the operators of the Great Firewall. As a matter of fact, the Declaration of Independence was illegal at the time it was written, too.

'No, hardly anyone behaves that way, nor should they.'

After all, if the North Koreans can pay cash, why not sell them state of the art GPS systems even if they won't allow smartphones to be imported?

For the non-regular readers, prior is an open supporter of European censorship laws. Too bad Tyler doesn't censor him.

I have never been a supporter of European censorship laws. Nor of Canadian ones, for that matter. The 1st Amendment is one of America's proudest accomplishments, and it is deeply disturbing to see any Americans believe that something called 'hate speech' should be banned. Clearly, such Americans have absolutely no understanding of why 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.' is one of the greatest sentences written in human history.

What I have said is that Germany, in a very special case after having killed millions under an explicitly genocidal regime, has no need to be concerned about any 'slippery slope' arguments when it comes to banning any speech that is intended to bring back the policies of that explicitly genocidal regime. Strangely enough, it seems as if none of the countries invaded by that genocidal regime wish to see Germany allowing talk about how the Volk need Lebensraum, and how exterminating sub-human parasites would be the best way to achieve it, either.

But assuming you are American, you have every right in the U.S. to say that you fully support Germans proudly proclaiming Sieg Heil and marching in torchlit parades while shouting about how the Volk needs to cleanse itself of parasites, and you are welcome to do so as far as I am concerned - the 1st Amendment absolutely guarantees you that right, after all. However, say that in Germany, and you will discover that Germans have about as much tolerance of such behavior as that provided to an American shouting 'I want to kill the president' in front of the White House as the president enters or leaves. Mainly because American presidents being killed and shot is another historical reality which limits expressing that particular sentiment in front of where the president lives.

And the 1st Amendment grants you the right to lie anonymously - enjoy the privilege as much as you like.

Thank you for confirming the truth of my comment.

If you say so.

In which case, people can read what is written, and make up their own mind about my support for 'European' censorship laws. But if it helps you, I fully oppose the idea of 'European censorship laws' in any European country except the one responsible for exterminating millions of people in its pursuit of its twisted ideas of racial purity. But if you think that Germany needs to go back to exterminating Jews and enslaving other 'subhumans,' well, fine - the 1st Amendment guarantees you the right to say that in the U.S. Germans, having already done that, reject the idea that a democratic society needs to allow itself to commit such genocidal crimes a second time.

Of course, most Americans aren't really big fans of the Nazis and what they did either.

And just for you, here again is the link where you can purchase Mein Kampf from Amazon, in Germany, for €59 with free shipping - https://www.amazon.de/Hitler-Mein-Kampf-Eine-kritische/dp/3981405234/ref=sr_1_1/258-7916467-0430909?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1501791657&sr=1-1&keywords=Mein+Kampf

"Thank you for confirming the truth of my comment."

LOL, he did indeed confirm his support for censorship. Though he's probably baffled by you seeing through his charade. Since in his own mind, he's a master of rhetoric and skillful wit.

Prior_Test, aren't you done with your pimping of Nazism? Everybody can see that you are a closet fascist at this point. You've posted a direct link to buy Mein Kampf 3 times now. Even the dimmest of closet fascists are bright enough to understand that flying a Swastika in the front yard is going to be a clue to the neighbors.

This is not Apple!


Come on, all the best PLA officers use iPhones these days - the facial recognition software alone is likely worth its weight in gold.

Oh wait - though likely not Apple technology, Prof. Cowen recently mentioned how the Chinese are using facial recognition technology - 'On my flight from Kunming to Chongqing, I witnessed my first “facial surveillance” arrest. Just as they were about to let us off the plane, two policemen appeared at the entrance, with a copy of a facial surveillance photograph. (Before you board any plane in China, they photograph your face plenty, and match it to various databases.) They walked down the aisle, turning left and right, looking for the passenger who matched the photo. They found him and escorted him off the plane, with the crowd watching nervously. He showed neither surprise nor did he protest his innocence.' http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/category/travels

Very nice to see how Prof. Cowen restrained himself from any virtue signalling, or mood affiliation of the variety that causes some to cry a tear when their plane lands at the birthplace of liberty.

There is an airport at Runnymede?

Apparently, liberty has several birthplaces that can cause tears after a plane lands.

Prof. Cowen, 2014 - 'Every time my plane lands in England I shed at least a tear, maybe more, out of realization that I am visiting a birthplace (the birthplace?) of liberty. This is not a joke and during my trips there I never quite snap out of that feeling, though I am also well aware of all the problems those people have foisted upon the world as well.' http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/03/inventing-freedom.html

Prof. Cowen, 2009 - 'Whenever I step off the plane in the U.K. or Netherlands a tear (or more) comes to my eye as I contemplate those countries as birthplaces of individual liberty.' http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2009/03/only-in-england-part-iii.html

Shorter column, from both a macro and micro perspective - principles are for losers.

"Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others." - Groucho Marx

On a serious note, "principles" are frequently offered by people without skin in the game for people who will be forced to pay the consequences. I completely agree with Tyler Cowen on this one.

You agree that making money by giving into the demands of a government determined to ensure no dissent or challenge to its power is the best way to help the 'people who will be forced to pay the consequences'? Which in the end, will be the Chinese themselves. They have, by far, the most skin in the game, and certainly more than Apple or Prof. Cowen. And myself, of course.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin quotes:

The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them

> Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

That's a strange combination of part of his official name as well as his alias. His full, official name is "Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov," but he's popularly known as "Vladamir Lenin" or simply "Lenin."

"Vladimir Ilyich Lenin" is kind of like saying "Stefani Joanne Angelina Gaga."

For those of us who have families, business, and/or frequently travel to China, fighting with China just makes our lives more difficult without likely helping anyone in China. I don't see how forcing affluent Chinese to use Samsung will help encourage political freedom. It might make "Bob from Ohio" happy, but that's about it.

'without likely helping anyone in China'

This is quite true.

'I don’t see how forcing affluent Chinese to use Samsung will help encourage political freedom.'

Would it be easier to install a VPN app on a Samsung phone? If yes, then the answer is quite clear. My (quite possibly inaccurate) understanding is that the only way to install apps on an iPhone is through Apple itself (this in connection with VLC and how Apple refused it permission to be available to users - https://techcrunch.com/2015/02/16/vlcs-media-player-for-ios-sneaks-back-into-the-app-store/ ). If it is possible to use a simple USB stick to transfer a VPN client to a Samsung phone (Android allows such a procedure, at least in theory), then clearly, having Apple leave the market would help undermine the Great Firewall.

Of course, if one accepts the idea that the Great Firewall is the sort of great leap forward that China needs to further the goals of its government, then having Apple cave in to that government's demands would be an advantage.

"It hardly seems unreasonable for a major company to follow the laws of the country it is operating in, even if those laws are unjust..."

I'll grant that there is a lot of grey area, but as a general statement I couldn't disagree with this sentence more. Are you really saying that people are absolved of moral responsibility for their actions just because they are following the law? Or are they only absolved if the responsibility has been defused across a large organization?

Surly there must be _some_ line you wouldn't cross when asked by a government. Would you present falsified economic data? Help identify and locate democracy advocates for imprisonment?

The rest of the article shows a much more nuanced view, but (IMHO) I think it could have been improved with the removal of this sentence and an additional discussion outlining cases where you thought that a companies had crossed moral lines. I think it would have helped it read more like the thesis was "navigating morality in a heterogeneous world is hard" rather than "even if immoral, they were following the law and it might be for the best in the long run anyway."

Present falsified economic data? What a fascinating hypothetical!

(in other words I'm laughing at your priceless principles. Follow the law. You want to work in China, follow Chinese law.)

No American should work in China.

Apple: Censorship and actual tyranny in China. Yawn, profits first.

Also Apple: Religious freedom in Indiana. Boycott!!!!!!!

Hmmm, Yeah, Ahhh.... good point Bob.

"Also Apple: Religious freedom in Indiana. Boycott!!!!!!!"

That's not fair to Apple.

"CEO Tim Cook, the most prominent openly gay executive, assailed a new Indiana law that critics say could make it legal for businesses there to discriminate against gays and lesbians. But he stopped short of saying his company would boycott the state as some of his peers have.
"Apple is open for everyone. We are deeply disappointed in Indiana's new law," Cook said on Friday on Twitter account."

There's probably a huge untapped market for a more socially conservative tech company. In the meantime, there is no price to pay for offending for offending social conservatives.

Oh, God. The gays are coming! The gays are coming! I really love how "religious freedom" became a code for stripping one of one's livehood (lots of religious freedom in, say, Saudi Arabia). It is like how "states' rights" became a code to "don't let the niggers use the bathroom or eat inside the fast food restaurant". Usually, such rethorical contortions are the death's kiss on an idea.

1. You can still buy iPhones in Indiana, so he's wrong.

2. If freedom of association/disassociation is based on whether we agree with the reasons behind it, then it is no freedom at all. It is a disturbing trend to me, that constitutional freedoms would be torn apart so quickly.

My guess, for what it's worth (nothing): freedom of association and speech will be eroded to the point of meaninglessness by 2100. Just like enumerated powers. Just like ICC being the fountainhead of absolute commercial regulatory power, etc etc. Living constitution means no constitution.

"I should refuse to speak at Chinese universities"

Yes you should.

Chinese universities are controlled by a tyrannical government. You are enabling tyranny.

Apple is not a sovereign entity and it does business at the pleasure of the state.

Many of the people who would be outraged at Apple for changing it's policies to accommodate China would be just as outraged if Apple refused to change it's policies to accommodate the EU.

We don't live in a world where corporations dictate to sovereign governments.

Corporations are collections of people. People can and do decide what is morally acceptable for them to do. If a sovereign government asks you to do something that you find immoral or misguided, then you have a choice. Exercising that choice is not what I'd call dictating.

So, Amazon should have pulled out of Germany rather than obey that silly law about selling Mein Kamp?

Mein Kampf

I'm not saying that they should do anything with regard to China or Germany. Just that there is a choice. If the people of Amazon felt that the moral transgression of not selling the book outweighed the moral benefit of operating in the country, then yes, they should pull out. That said, let's not pretend that the free speech situations in China and Germany in any way equivalent in scale or scope.

I do want to push back against the notion that corporations, and the people that run them, have no moral responsibility beyond following local law.

" Just that there is a choice."

Of course, there's a choice. Apple clearly made a choice. If you don't like it, sell your shares in Apple and don't buy their products.

Amazon is not allowed to violate copyright law, neither in Germany nor in the U.S. Which is why it deleted copies of 1984 from Americans who had bought it - 'Owners of Amazon's Kindle electronic book reader have received a nasty surprise, after discovering that copies of books by George Orwell had been deleted from their gadgets without their knowledge.

The books - downloaded from Amazon.com by American Kindle users - were remotely deleted after what the US company now says was a rights issue regarding the publisher, MobileReference.com. .... "When we were notified of this by the rights holder, we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers' devices, and refunded customers."' https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2009/jul/17/amazon-kindle-1984

However, considering how Prof. Cowen apparently speaks German, it really would not have been hard to see that it is quite easy to currently order Mein Kampf in Germany from Amazon - https://www.amazon.de/Hitler-Mein-Kampf-Eine-kritische/dp/3981405234/ref=sr_1_1/258-7916467-0430909?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1501791657&sr=1-1&keywords=Mein+Kampf

It costs €59, with free shipping, by the way.

Maybe Prof. Cowen could try picking a better example next time.


This article was entirely defensive and offered no real innovative ideas.

Do you modify your message when speaking in China to prevent your hosts from being embarrassed?

When in China, do you avoid discussing the fact that your works are actively censored by the government?

If yes, then you're enabling. If you ensure your audience is aware of restrictions on your speech, then I think this is defensible.

I don't think the Chinese gov is ok with this approach. Once Google started notifying users "some results for this search are being censored", they got the boot.

"It hardly seems unreasonable for a major company to follow the laws of the country it is operating in, even if those laws are unjust or imprudent." Whao, that is literally the first stupid sentence I have ever read of yours. Think about it and tell me u disagree. Context is way too important to let such a blanket statement like that fly, otherwise you have literally made innumerable atrocities "reasonable."

The broad issue was not principles vs profits, but US FBI request for unlocking a terrorist's phone vs china's demand. You could argue the FBI demand had wider implications and therefore merited a stronger stance, but that is unfortunately not the argument. And so apple is rightly accused of grandstanding when they know little is actually at stake. What will Uncle Sam really do? huff puff.. but china, different story. One more point to the argument that an element of america is essentially in subconscious awe of the chinese state.

That was a good and necessary piece, though I'm still unconvinced. And it is critical that I, as an internet commenter, be convinced, otherwise what hope have you of persuading even less malleable minds?

You made a point to acknowledge the varying criticisms against Apple but didn't really speak to them, instead defending Apple as an abstract corporation rather than the real-world corporation it is.

I think much of the criticism against Apple is overblown, the result of an inflated mythos surrounding Silicon Valley among tech journalists, some warranted but mostly exaggerated by both their profession and the American experience, where tech companies have visibly massive cultural, social, and political influence. We expect one of the world's largest corporations with extraordinary cultural cache to have some influence wherever it operates, as it does here, but it does not. I agree we should not fault Apple, the abstract corporation, for acceding to China's demands. Most companies would do, and have done, the same. That's where your argument succeeds.

But Apple isn't an abstract corporation; it's a real corporation with that exaggerated mythos (and nobody has done more to exaggerate it than Apple), and that's where I think the criticisms have merit. Apple is supposed to be a socially conscious, principles-first company, as evidenced by its intransigence with the FBI and its threats against Indiana and North Carolina. Tim Cook postured and preened over what he deemed unacceptable legislation, threatening to withdraw economically from states that wouldn't yield to Apple's demands, and received glowing praise from those same tech journalists when he did. Apple's principles were easy to defend when the costs were low, but once defending them proved potentially too costly they acquiesced instantly. I think it's entirely fair to criticize Apple for letting its Progressive ideals lapse when its bottom line is threatened--for defending its actions by appealing to Principles and Progress in America but statute only in China. It's rather pitiful.

People forget that the internet is only one of many things you can do with an iPhone. The internet is locked down in China but that doesn't affect picture taking, messaging, gaming, audio recording, etc. The iPhone is an incredibly useful device regardless of the openness of the internet. Why shouldn't Apple sell to those customers that value what the iPhone can do?


Keeping the Chinese people isolated from the world is not the way to promote progress in China.

Grandstanding about FBI requests does not support the cause of freedom from fear and domestic tranquility.

Then what is the right way to promote progress? Every tech company under the sun has used that excuse to justify censoring in China, and yet the internet there is much more heavily censored today than 10 years ago. I can't see a compelling moral argument for a tech company to allow itself to be neutered by censorship authorities.

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