By Kevin Stocklin
In 1984, Apple ran its now iconic Super Bowl ad, directed by Hollywood heavyweight Ridley Scott, in which a young female athlete with a sledgehammer destroys an enormous video screen from which “Big Brother” issues diktats to a cowed population that is seated in rows and dressed in gray prison attire.
It was an ad for the Macintosh computer, and an upstart challenge to the overwhelming dominance of Bill Gates’ computer software firm, Microsoft. Today, however, some say that a role reversal has taken place.
“Apple has become Big Brother,” Jeremy Tedesco, a senior attorney at the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), told The Epoch Times. “They’re stepping into Big Brother’s shoes.”
The ADF is representing shareholders who asked Apple to inform them about whether the company is using its dominant position in global communications to silence free speech and push a political agenda. This week, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) ruled against Apple’s management and green-lighted a shareholder proposal from the American Family Association (AFA) demanding that Apple clarify its policies for removing apps from its platform, amid allegations that its actions have been arbitrary and politically biased.
In January 2021, Apple grabbed headlines when it joined with Google in removing Parler, a social media app that permitted content that Apple called “dangerous,” from its platform. Parler never fully recovered and ultimately shut down in April 2023.
In November 2022, Elon Musk, who purchased the social media site Twitter, now called X, said in a post that Apple had ceased advertising on the site and “also threatened to withhold Twitter from its App Store, but won’t tell us why.”
Mr. Musk, who has taken heavy criticism for opening the site up to a number of users—including former President Donald Trump, who had previously been banned—also posted a poll asking whether Apple should “publish all censorship actions it has taken that affect its customers.”
The AFA’s proposal is making a similar request.
Terms of Service ‘Vague and Subjective’
“This proposal is about vague terms of service that Apple can use, and has been using, to shut down political and religious content that they disagree with, or that some external activists, whether they be government or third parties, don’t agree with,” Mr. Tedesco said. “Certainly, the Parler situation probably falls into the category of these kinds of policies, but it’s much broader than Parler.
“The Manhattan Declaration app was taken down two years ago because Apple said it offended certain members of their community,” Mr. Tedesco said. “There’s clear evidence that Apple is essentially doing the bidding of Communist China and taking down Christian and other religious apps, or apps that are political in nature, in their China-based app store.”
The Manhattan Declaration, a self-described “call of Christian conscience,” is a 2009 treatise from Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians on issues such as abortion, religious freedom, civil rights, and same-sex marriage.
The AFA’s proposal asks Apple management to inform shareholders “how it is protecting the free speech and freedom of religion of its users from government interference in light of its stated commitment to international human rights.” Apple’s policies, the ADF charges in a supporting brief, are subjective and vague, and allow staff to shut down any content that they don’t like.
The proposal cites Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines, which states that Apple “will reject apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line [such as] content that is offensive, insensitive, upsetting, intended to disgust, in exceptionally poor taste, or just plain creepy.”
But according to the supporting brief, “while protecting vulnerable groups is laudable, these kinds of terms are inherently vague and subjective and therefore easy to use for viewpoint discrimination.”
‘The Rules Were on Our Side’
Jerry Bowyer, a consultant to the AFA on this proposal, told The Epoch Times that the goal is “to have the company make modifications to its policies and culture, so that they can restore trust with non-left-of-center shareholders and customers, who feel as though the company is taking sides on hot-button cultural issues.”
The SEC permitted this proposal to go to a shareholder vote, despite objections from Apple’s management. Many conservatives have charged that the SEC has been biased against their shareholder proposals, while permitting those from progressive groups, but Mr. Bowyer said he was not surprised that the SEC allowed the AFA’s proposal to go to a vote because “the rules were on our side.”
“Increasingly, the Securities and Exchange Commission has made it tougher for companies to block proposals, and I think the Biden administration did that because they wanted more shareholder engagement from the left,” he said. “What I think they didn’t count on is that folks on the left already knew the rules and how to game the system, but the new entrants into this world are conservatives.
“So by making it easier for shareholder activism to occur, it had the unintended consequences of opening the gates up for us,” Mr. Bowyer said.
Apple, like many corporations, often gets shareholder proposals from activist groups on issues like reducing fossil fuel use and racial equity. In March 2022, shareholders proposed and approved a requirement that Apple conduct a racial equity audit on its hiring and salary policies.
This proposal was approved over the objections of Apple’s management.
Many people argue that Apple, as a private company, is free to permit whatever content it likes on its platform, but Mr. Bowyer disagrees.
“They’re not a private company, they’re a publicly traded company,” he said. “If Tim Cook wants to take it off the market, take out a big loan and buy up the Apple shares and make it Tim’s computer company, he can do that at any time.
“But Steve Jobs went public, which means shareholders own it, which means that shareholders get the final say,” he said. “All we’re doing is helping the owners, the silent majority of owners who want companies to stick to their business.”