Apple's Paradox: When Capitalists Defend Civil Rights

By Doctor Comrade

Update: 10:45PM. The FBI has now asked for Apple to unlock another iPhone in an unrelated gang case in Boston, Massachusetts. Rather than waiting for the resolution of the San Bernardino case, the FBI has gone ahead and demanded additional access, violating their earlier promises that the requested backdoor would only be used once.

Apple's recent skirmish with the FBI is a dangerous sign of things to come. On one hand, Apple has been applauded for resisting the government's overreach, overreach which would set a precedent allowing the government to invade the privacy of many Americans. On the other hand, Apple's attempts to block the FBI are not altruistic, they are cynical and profit-driven. As Michal Rozworski noted in Jacobin, "Apple’s intransigence is certainly welcome. But a dose of skepticism is also warranted.... The company’s new stance may well be part of a long-term marketing maneuver aimed at privacy-conscious potential buyers, or it could be motivated by something else entirely. The bottom line is, Apple is most concerned with profits — and its moves regarding privacy and civil liberties should be interpreted with this basic fact in mind." Also keep in mind that Apple may have even helped the NSA access user information before deciding that wasn't cool.

How, then, should we proceed, not only considering Apple's mixed track record with civil liberties and privacy but also in light of capitalist resistance to government interference?

We have two fundamental questions: the first is, should private corporations be allowed to resist government interference, and on what grounds?

This puts many Marxists in a difficult position because we are anti-capitalism and oppose the current US government. In the simplest terms, the Apple-FBI fight is like watching Emperor Palpatine fight Lord Voldemort. And it's a no-win situation for everyone: if Apple wins, then it erodes the government's ability and legitimacy to regulate companies that need regulation; if the FBI wins, then it erodes our civil liberties. The precedent set by the eventual resolution of this problem results in a loss for society as a whole.

Is it acceptable for us to give some support to Apple during this fight? Considering that the US government will undoubtedly use this power beyond the parameters of fighting terrorism, my answer is a tepid yes. Since September 11, 2001, the US government has used anti-terrorism as the disguise to wage the War on Drugskill innocent civilians abroad, and imprison innocent people. If the government is allowed to backdoor into any phone, then this is not only unconstitutional but also unconscionable. It seems that we should oppose this effort to expand the government's power, even if doing so means a temporary setback in the struggle against capitalism.

This, however, yields the second fundamental question: why should we allow capitalist organizations to defend our rights?

The simple answer is we shouldn't and can't count on capitalists to advocate for us. They abandon us when profit is at stake (like Apple has done for its factory workers), and they will also intentionally sabotage our abilities to speak for ourselves (like Apple did to its workers when they tried to unionize). As I argued last October, "The capitalist does not represent the interests or the needs of the worker because the capitalist is not beholden to the worker’s interests. We shouldn’t be surprised when CEOs work tirelessly for the betterment of shareholders rather than (and at the expense of) workers."

In this case, Apple is working to benefit its own profit margin with the stated goal of limiting government interference in civil liberties. What they are actually protecting are their proprietary software and their business interests. They're appealing to the pro-privacy cognoscenti, Silicon Valley libertarians, and the anti-government population.