Brandon Chen, originally published in Summer 2019.
Forgot where you parked your car after a long day at the mall? Google Maps will sort through your location history to find it for you within seconds. Left your phone somewhere and you’re not sure where to find it? Find My iPhone will ping it for you. Don’t want your wife, daughter, mother, sister, or any woman in your family to leave the house without your permission? In Saudi Arabia, an app called Absher (conveniently available on both Apple and Google devices) will let you track any female under your guardianship, regardless of whether or not they give consent.
In recent weeks both Apple and Google have come under fire for allowing Absher, which roughly means “yes sir” in Arabic, to be available on both the App Store and the Google Play Store. The app, sponsored, designed, and distributed by the government, allows men to not only monitor the location of women under their guardianship, but also limit where and when they’re allowed to travel. In response to popular outcry, both Apple and Google have launched investigations into whether or not the app is consistent with their company missions. While Apple is still investigating, Google has concluded its inquiry—the app will remain on the Play Store. Unsurprisingly, the decision faced staunch public opposition.
And rightfully so. The Saudi guardianship system is a 21st-century atrocity: an anachronistic Islamic doctrine that much of the world (including some Muslims) justifiably see as a misogynistic and unjust infringement on basic human rights and agency. Additionally, Google’s complicity means the company is no longer a bystander, but an active supporter. There are two main messages to be gleaned from this situation.
For one, Absher offers insight into the true sentiments of Saudi Arabia’s new regime. The real force behind the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS for short), has been touted both domestically and internationally as a more modern ruler than his predecessors helping to modernize the peninsular nation. His government made headlines recently for lifting the ban on women driving, and it enjoys widespread support in the kingdom. Such developments are exactly what MBS strives for.
However, in actuality, his reforms are nothing more than an attempt to cling to power. While there is no doubt that some positive (albeit incremental) change has occurred, the underlying intent of the prince’s efforts is to serve himself, and governmental efforts such as Absher reveal his true intentions are nowhere near as progressive as they might seem.
Ambitious plans, such as the unrealistic Vision 2030 economic effort to modernize and ignite the kingdom’s economy, make up the core of bin Salman’s far-reaching policies. However, simultaneous efforts to consolidate power and tighten his hold on the kingdom offer a glance at his true intentions. Since becoming the driving force behind the throne, MBS has cut off many members of the royal family from power and tightened his circle of confidants. Notoriously large in the past, the Saudi royal family now concentrates power in the hands of a select few—with MBS at the center of it all. The prince’s understated yet effective efforts to acquire power don’t stop there: he has marginalized and sidelined the religious establishment, continued political repression, and even imprisoned political officials in a luxury hotel.
Perhaps MBS has learned from the example of Morocco, where the survival of the regime relies on its strategy of passing toothless reforms to quell both international and domestic outrage, while ramping up repression and solidifying control. Unfortunately, when it comes to the international community, precedent discourages sovereign nations from interfering with others’ domestic issues. Private companies, on the other hand, are not bound by such customs, and can push for change in whatever manner they see fit.
The second point to be taken from the Absher incident, and of more international consequence, is Google’s complicit role in enabling Saudi Arabia’s repression. In response to public pushback, Google stated that the app does not violate its terms of service, and it has continued to allow the download and use of Absher on its devices. Perhaps Google does not wish to spark conflict with a nation with significant geostrategic importance; perhaps it wants to avoid bad press for dictating what a country should and should not do. Regardless of the specific reasoning, Google has made its priorities clear.
Google likes to portray itself as a force for good. In its terms of service, clauses forbidding the promotion of violence, harassment, and discrimination are broadly stated and often enforced. For a period of time, its corporate motto was “Don’t be evil.” In recent years, however, Google dropped the motto and any pretense to morality along with it.
Recently, the company made headlines for working with the Chinese government to produce a heavily censored version of its search engine for use within China. The version of Google offered to Chinese citizens completely obliterates the painful history of Chinese repression, civil rights violations, and even the mention of Taiwanese, Tibetan, and other independence movements. Not only is the Chinese government responsible for such egregious injustices, the censorship and erasure of history conducted ties into this violation as well. Google’s cooperation with China is tantamount to supporting and enabling the oppressive, inhumane regime. In this instance, and many others, Google has chosen profit over progress.
There is a valid argument that Google’s cooperation with authoritarian regimes allows it to offer technology and an internet connection to otherwise isolated communities, and that heavily regulated access is better than none at all. However, Google does not have a monopoly in the tech market. If it were to stand up to Saudi Arabia, China, and other autocratic states, state-controlled entities would provide censored internet access anyway. Internet and tech access, however fettered, does not depend on Google, so it is difficult to frame Google’s decision as the lesser of two evils.
Google could easily use its platform to promote social change and the betterment of societies across the globe. At least in the United States, it rightfully bans apps that promote homophobia and racism. As a private company, Google has every right to monitor and determine what is and is not allowed on its platforms. There is no global right to publish an app, or to have access to a technological service, or even to speak freely (as many hate groups justify their messages). In turn, Google fully has the moral and technological capabilities to promote justice, equality, and civil liberties in Saudi Arabia, China, and the world in general.
And yet, it chooses not to do so. By failing to exercise its legitimate right to monitor discriminatory, repressive, and inhumane content, Google has chosen to ignore the standards it set for itself (and basic human decency more generally). As one of the most powerful companies in the world, Google could certainly do a lot of good. The fact that it chooses not to says more than any mission statement could, and as long as Google cooperates with repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia and China, it will remain complicit in the inhumane and backward principles it currently chooses to support.