Apple CEO Tim Cook Takes More Shots at Silicon Valley Neighbors

The chief executive paints a dire picture of a future without privacy.

Evan Niu
Evan Niu, CFA
Jun 17, 2019 at 3:03PM
Technology and Telecom

Tim Cook denied that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) was taking shots at rivals Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) subsidiary Google earlier this month when the company introduced a new single sign-on (SSO) tool, even though the Mac maker definitely was. Cook gave the 2019 commencement address at Stanford over the weekend, and again criticized Apple's Silicon Valley neighbors. There's no denying who the chief executive was singling out in his most recent privacy crusade.

Here's the advice that Cook gave to new graduates.

Tim Cook on stage in front of an Apple logo

Tim Cook. Image source: Apple.

Criticizing chaos factories

After praising Silicon Valley for "some of the most revolutionary inventions in modern history," Cook's speech turned a little dark to address some of the growing criticism of tech behemoths:

But lately, it seems, this industry is becoming better known for a less noble innovation: the belief that you can claim credit without accepting responsibility.

We see it every day now, with every data breach, every privacy violation, every blind eye turned to hate speech. Fake news poisoning our national conversation. The false promise of miracles in exchange for a single drop of your blood. Too many seem to think that good intentions excuse away harmful outcomes.

Those are overt jabs at Facebook and Google, alongside a reference to Theranos. Following two years of scandals, Facebook has virtually become synonymous with "privacy violation." Google's YouTube has been widely criticized for acting too slowly in addressing hate speech, just this month finally taking action to ban extremist content. Both Facebook and YouTube have been condemned for their roles in allowing misinformation and fake news to spread on their respective platforms.

"But if you've built a chaos factory, you can't dodge responsibility for the chaos," Cook said. "Taking responsibility means having the courage to think things through." Cook then described a dystopian future where privacy doesn't exist:

Think about what's at stake. Everything you write, everything you say, every topic of curiosity, every stray thought, every impulsive purchase, every moment of frustration or weakness, every gripe or complaint, every secret shared in confidence.

In a world without digital privacy, even if you have done nothing wrong other than think differently, you begin to censor yourself. Not entirely at first. Just a little, bit by bit. To risk less, to hope less, to imagine less, to dare less, to create less, to try less, to talk less, to think less. The chilling effect of digital surveillance is profound, and it touches everything.

Can privacy be free?

The privacy debate has sparked plenty of contention between Silicon Valley's most powerful tech giants. In a New York Times op-ed just last month, Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote that "privacy cannot be a luxury good offered only to people who can afford to buy premium products and services," an apparent jab at Apple and its $1,000 monitor stands.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressed a similar sentiment last year in an interview with Vox. "You know, I find that argument, that if you're not paying that somehow we can't care about you, to be extremely glib and not at all aligned with the truth," His Zuckness said. "The reality here is that if you want to build a service that helps connect everyone in the world, then there are a lot of people who can't afford to pay."