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Apple's deafening silence on net neutrality
By Thom Holwerda on 2017-07-14 11:15:34

Two days ago, the Day of Action to defend net neutrality took place. With the new US administration came a new chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, who is working hard to try and undo the strict net neutrality rules put in place by his predecessor Tom Wheeler. Pai and the US Congress are under pressure from and enticed by millions of dollars worth of "donations" from the telecommunications industry to gut net neutrality.

The 2017 Day of Action feels a lot like a retreat of 2014, when net neutrality was at stake as well. The 2014 campaign contributed to Tom Wheeler's decision to enact strict net neutrality rules, and was supported by a large number of technology companies. This year, too, the Day of Action was supported by companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, Twitter, Reddit, Snap, Facebook, and so on.

One company is conspicuously absent from the net neutrality debate: Apple. The Cupertino giant is usually all too eager to ride the waves of what in American political parlance are called "liberal" causes, so its absence from the fight for net neutrality may seem surprising. In reality, though, Apple's absence makes a lot of sense: Apple does not benefit from net neutrality.

Apple has never openly supported net neutrality. Back in 2014, Apple was not among the 100 companies that signed the open letter in support of net neutrality, and it's not a member of the Internet Association, the industry group behind the Day of Action which lobbies for net neutrality. In addition, in 2009, Apple was caught red-handed blocking VOIP solutions on the iPhone; the company had a secret agreement with AT&T to that effect.

Tim Cook didn't so much as tweet about the Day of Action.

The only instance of Apple saying anything about net neutrality was in February 2017, in response to a question during a shareholders meeting.

Finally, Tim Cook responded to a question about the Trump administration's position against Net Neutrality, which seemed to catch the executive off guard.

While Apple has been vocal about a number of policies from the new president's office, Cook downplayed his response here: "We stay out of politics but stay in policy. If Net Neutrality became a top thing, we would definitely engage in it."

Cook also added that Apple is not a major lobbying company in comparison to others, but it believes all content should be treated the same.

This is a rather weak statement, especially since unless you've been living under a rock, net neutrality has been a "top thing" for several years now. The time to "engage in it" was 2014 and this year, and on both crucial occasions, Apple's utter silence is deafening. And in what some may find surprising, net neutrality is an entirely safe bet to support - both sides of the political isle in the US overwhelmingly support net neutrality. So why is Apple silent?

We can only guess, of course, but with a bit of common sense it's not hard to formulate a likely answer. While Apple's iOS and Mac businesses are doing really well, the company is also trying to break into the streaming market for both music and video. Apple's foray into streaming music has really only just begun, and with just 3% (20 million people) of Apple's installed base subscribed to Apple Music, it's clear Apple has a lot of room to grow. However, it's also facing a lot of competition: without the benefit of coming preinstalled on the most popular smartphone in the world, Spotify managed to add 20 million subscribers last year alone, now sitting at a total of 50 million subscribers. Apple's foray into streaming video, meanwhile, faces far stronger competition from the likes of Netflix and Amazon Video.

With this in mind, the answer as to why Apple remains silent on net neutrality should be easy to answer: if net neutrality rules were to be gutted, Apple could leap at the opportunity to pay carriers and ISPs to favour its streaming services over the competition. Apple could easily outspend a company like Spotify, making sure Apple Music users would get preferential treatment from carriers/ISPs over Spotify users. As mentioned above - Apple did it before with VOIP, so it's not like this would be an unprecedented or uncharacteristic move for the Cupertino giant.

Unless Apple breaks its silence and finally openly, unequivocally, and determinedly supports net neutrality, the safe, capitalist, and historically informed assumption is that Apple does not want net neutrality, because it would limit their ability to buy preferential treatment from carriers and ISPs.

And it would be nice if the technology press stopped tip-toeing around Apple's silence on this crucially important matter - but Apple's preferential treatment in the technology press is a matter for another time.

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