It’s complicated: Google, Apple and the Saudi wife-tracking app

Note: This is something I originally published on the New Gatekeepers blog at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

It’s one of those things that sounds so simple when you see a headline flash by in your Twitter stream: Apple and Google offer a smartphone app in Saudi Arabia that allows husbands to track their wives, and even prevent them from crossing the border? That’s outrageous! Why would such an app even exist, let alone be allowed in the app store? It’s easy to see why members of Congress called for the tech giants to remove the app, and why media coverage of the issue played on this outrage. As with so many other things, however, there’s more to this issue than can be summarized in a tweet.

The first thing that makes it complicated is that the app in question — known as Absher — doesn’t just allow Saudi men to track and block the movements of their wives, it also provides electronic access to a wide range of official government services, including driver’s license and passport renewals. Which is probably why Google said earlier this week it had decided not to remove the app from its store (although it did say it would continue to review the app’s status, as did Apple). In case you haven’t made the obvious connection, the reason this wife-tracking feature is included in a government services app is that tracking your wife is completely legal in Saudi Arabia. A husband is his wife’s legal guardian, and has control over all of her movements, and if she has no husband then she needs the consent of her father or brother.

In other words, if Google removed the Absher app from its store, not only would it be removing a service that is completely legal in that country (whether Westerners like it or not) but it would also be removing an app that provides a wide range of official government services. That complicates things enormously. Could Google or Apple convince the app-maker to remove that specific feature? Perhaps — except that it is completely legal in Saudi Arabia. What would the rationale be for removing a totally legal feature? That people in other countries don’t like it?

But it gets even more complicated. The Saudi government and various observers in that country defended the app as having a wide variety of benefits, but they weren’t the only ones encouraging Google and Apple not to rush to judgement and delete the app. Women both inside and outside Saudi Arabia have also argued that blocking the app could be counterproductive. Why? Because according to advocates for Saudi women, before the app came along, the process that husbands — even well-meaning ones — had to go through in order to approve their wife’s travel was hugely complicated and time-consuming. That meant many husbands didn’t do it, because they argued that the paperwork required was too much trouble.

Egyptian-American author Mona Eltahawy noted on Twitter she received a message from a Saudi feminist who noted that the Absher app “is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself” — the problem being the laws that make a Saudi man the legal guardian of his wife. “This app is an abomination,” the Saudi feminist continued, “but it has helped women rather than the opposite. Those who want to flee can do so with app access, but could never before with actual paperwork and the previous bureaucratic system. Absher is a horrible, horrible application, but the alternative is worse.”

This is a classic global ethics problem, one that Google, Apple, Facebook, and even Twitter have to confront regularly: The app itself is completely legal in the country in which it is offered, and it includes access to a variety of official government services. But one of those services, while also completely legal in that country, is seen as reprehensible in many other (but not all) countries for ethical and moral reasons. What should Google or Apple do in this case? Apple faced a similar kind of problem in China, when the government asked it to remove all the VPN (virtual private networking) apps from its store, because they allow Chinese citizens to get around the Great Firewall and access banned sites. This is the law in China, and so Apple complied. It stores user data in China as well for the same reason (something Facebook said this week it will not do because of the country’s human-rights record).

So not only would removing the Saudi wife-tracking app block people from accessing perfectly legal government services, but doing so could actually leave married Saudi women worse off than they were before. How is that the right thing to do? Being a global superpower isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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