Uber recently became embroiled in a political row, after listing the territory of Western Sahara as a separate country, enraging users and officials in Morocco, which claims the state as its own.
Coming just weeks after a tentative launch in the port city of Casablanca, the rideshare giant’s 328th location, the firm was slammed by Moroccans for listing the self-proclaimed region, from which Red Herring reported earlier this year, as a separate entity. Uber Morocco quickly backtracked, removing the reference while confirming a more widespread launch to come.
Here are some more recent examples of when tech companies have walked into the middle of political disputes – and how they turned out. CEOs, ready your notepads…
1) Nokia’s monitoring tech gets Tehran protesters locked up
In 2009, amid protests against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidential election victory, Nokia Siemens Networks – now Nokia Networks – sold communications monitoring equipment to the Iranian government. Soon it was revealed that dissidents were being tracked and detained using the technology, causing a huge consumer backlash in the country.
Stores soon boycotted the firm’s handsets and anti-Nokia graffiti popped up all over Tehran. “It would be a reasonable excuse for Nokia if they had sold the monitoring technology to a democratic country for controlling child abuse or other uses,” said one Iranian journalist, detained during the unrest, “but selling it to the Iranian government with a very clear background of human rights violence and suppression of dissent, it’s just inexcusable for me. I’d like to tell Nokia that I’m tortured because they had sold this damn technology to our government.”
2) Google steps on the Spanish media
Last Christmas the fight between publishers, who create content, and the tech firms who, er, publish them, heated up. Faced with the ire of the world’s fourth-largest tech firm, every country backed down on its backing of publishers. All, that is, except Spain, which pushed for the right for its publishers to be paid.
Google didn’t see it that way. Soon after the challenge it pulled its Google News service, whipping up a storm of debate. On one side, the ’tech’ advocates, claiming a David position in a fight against the ‘Goliath’ of ‘old media’, that in truth has far smaller margins (and probably smaller in-office slides) than its Mountain View adversary. The row still rages, and Spaniards haven’t been able to access Google News since. Unless they have a VPN, of course.
3) IBM’s apartheid refusal
In the 1980s, amid the repressive South African policy of Apartheid, a glut of U.S. technology firms left the country – as did western firms of various kinds – as part of the divestment movement. IBM, however, initially decided to stay put, on the flimsy grounds that, according to then-CEO John Akers, “as long as we’re successful and as long as we believe that our presence in South Africa is a force for change, we’re going to remain.”
Presumably it wasn’t small-change he was referring to. In 1986 IBM pulled out of South Africa, an action Akers reflected on as “necessary”, employing what must be the polar opposite of a crystal ball. IBM even managed to maintain a presence there whilst appeasing its shareholders at home; by divesting its South African subsidiary into a new entity, all of its product line was still available to buy. Economists speculated that IBM’s move was probably founded more on greenbacks than belatedly opposing state-sanctioned inequality. “Economically they don’t have a big stake in South Africa,” Steve Milunovich, of Boston Corp, said.
4) YouTube stuck between the Mountain and the Prophet
In September 2012 some Californians made a film about Islam. Entitled ‘The Innocence of Muslims’, the short movie packed in an incredible number of insulting and denigrating images of Islam, at a time when, after invasions and an Arab Spring, tensions between the West and Muslim world were intensifying.
Riots soon broke out across the Middle East in retaliation at the film – which even moderate Muslims viewed as highly offensive. Even the Benghazi attacks in Libya were thought to have been spurred by the film. YouTube was thrown into a quandary: keep the film up and risk further bloodshed, or take it down and shatter the pillar of free speech?
YouTube blocked the video voluntarily in several Muslim-majority states, citing local laws. But, in most countries, the hackneyed piece of ‘art’ remained viewable. Even the Obama administration intervened to try to persuade YouTube to take down The Innocence of Muslims, but the Google-backed giant refused.
5) Every search engine vs (or with) China
China is a place where censorship can rattle even the most open-minded of visiting foreigners. When it comes to the Internet, the Communist Party’s policies have created a Catch-22 that even John Akers could (might) understand. Stay and play by the rules, or continually poke at the planet’s largest country?
In 2009 Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft were labeled ‘accomplices of oppression’ by allowing state suppression of dissent, and events such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which are still barely known by locals who live a stone’s throw away from Beijing’s famous thoroughfare. Yahoo! already had previous: in 2005 it handed over info to the Chinese government, which led to the arrest of journalist Shi Tao for ‘illegally divulging state secrets abroad’. Tao only left prison two years ago this week.
*BONUS SIXTH POINT: Any tech company versus net neutrality.