Is Apple evil?

June 01, 2010 12:32 PM EDT

I don't like giving my money to companies that do evil. I try not to do business with companies that employ sweatshop labor, pollute massively, or otherwise engage in egregiously reprehensible business practices.

Lately, despite my love for its products, I'm wondering if Apple falls into the category of evil companies. An epidemic of suicides at Foxconn, intimidation of journalists, and corporate censorship has my conscience bothering me about supporting Apple products.

Foxconn suicides

Start with the Foxconn suicides: The Chinese manufacturing company makes iPads, iPhones, and other devices for Apple, as well as Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Sony. This year, 10 workers for the company have committed suicide, and three more have tried, of the more than 300,000 people who work and live at the facility.

Some Western journalists defend Foxconn, noting that the plant's suicide rate is actually lower than the Chinese average. "Media gets its facts wrong - working at Foxconn significantly cuts suicide risk," writes Tom Foremski at ZDNet.

But journalist Dan Lyons, writing satirically as "Fake Steve Jobs," sets the record straight:

Sure, people kill themselves all the time. But the Foxconn people all work for the same company, in the same place, and they’re all doing it in the same way, and that way happens to be a gruesome, public way that makes a spectacle of their death. They’re not pill-takers or wrist-slitters or hangers. They’re not Sylvia Plath wannabes, sealing off the kitchen and quietly sticking their head in the oven. They’re jumpers. And jumpers, my friends, are a different breed. Ask any cop or shrink who deals with this stuff. Jumpers want to make a statement. Jumpers are trying to tell you something.

Also, consider this. Walmart has 1.4 million employees in the United States. Can you remember a time when 10 or 15 Walmart workers jumped to their deaths from the roofs of Walmart stores over the course of a few months? Have you ever heard of Walmart asking employees to sign a no-suicide contract, or putting safety nets up on all of its buildings? If this did happen, would you think maybe something is going on at Walmart? Or would you just say, well, 10 or 15 people out of 1.4 million is still waaaay below the national average?

Intimidating journalists

Every company has a right to protect its trade secrets. But did Apple go too far in April when the gadget blog Gizmodo obtained a prototype of the next-generation iPhone? Apple called the local police, who broke into blogger Jason Chen's home and confiscated his computers.

Chen describes the incident this way:

My wife and I drove to dinner and got back at about 9:45 pm. When I got home I noticed the garage door wa half-open, and when I tried to open it, officers came out and said they had a warrant to search my house and any vehicles on the property "in my control." They then made me place my hands behind my head and searched me to make sure I had no weapons or sharp objects on me.

Also:

They told me they were here for a "few hours already" and had to break the front door open because I wasn't home to open the door.

Was breaking down the guy's door, handcuffing and searching him necessary? He's not a meth manufacturer with a cache of automatic weapons, he's a tech blogger.

In addition to excessive force, the incident was a violation of shield law that protects journalists, argues the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Censorship

Apple treats its customers like children, deciding for them what they should be allowed to read and view in the company App Store. It blocks content it deems obscene, or excessively offensive, occasionally blocking political speech, such as a cartoon app by Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Fiore, or an app by a Republican Congressional candidate.

Mitigating circumstances

There are mitigating circumstances and evolving information in each of those incidents.

In the Foxconn incident, the facts just aren't all in. Company management seems to be taking steps to try to mitigate the problem. The Chinese government is looking into it. And Apple is reportedly providing subsidies to workers at Foxconn.

In the Engadget case: While Apple set the chain of events in motion by calling the police to report their iPhone missing (or stolen), the company didn't pull the cops' strings

The shield law simply doesn't apply here, argue CNET.com's Declan McCullagh and Greg Sandoval. The law allows journalists to protect the identity of criminals in the course of investigating their stories. But the law does not allow the journalists to commit crimes themselves. And Gizmodo may have committed a crime here -- possession of stolen property, namely, the prototype iPhone.

As for censorship:

  • When I criticized Apple's policies last month, readers jumped to Apple's defense. Yes, they're adults and want to decide what content they should be allowed to see and read -- and they've decided they don't want to see porn, and are happy Apple is screening it out for them.
  • Apple eventually allowed the Congressional candidate's and political cartoon apps into the App Store (although we don't know what political other apps may have been blocked).
  • Apple doesn't have a monopoly on mobile devices, meaning that content blocked from the App Store isn't blocked from the marketplace. And, besides, you can get any content you want on the Internet with the Web browsers built into the iPhone and iPad.

Time for boycott?

So is it time to boycott Apple?

No, or at least not yet. While Apple has made some troubling decisions in recent months, these cases are still evolving, and new information is coming in. So I'll continue giving Apple my business -- but I'm keeping an eye on them.

Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner.