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Apple, censorship, and cogs in the wheel: the Dalai Lama is expunged from Chinese App Store


It's being reported by PC World that Apple has begun censoring iPhone applications that contain any reference to the Dalai Lama in the Chinese App Store. At least five applications that contain references to the Dalai Lama have been banned: three of the apps – Dalai Quotes [$.99, iTunes], Dalai Lama Quotes [$.99, iTunes], and Dalai Lama Prayerwheel [$.99, iTunes] – contain quotes by His Holiness, while a fourth, Paging Dalai Lama [free, iTunes] tells users where he is currently teaching. A fifth app called Nobel Laureates [$.99, iTunes], details information about all the Nobel Peace Prize winners since the prize began in 1895. The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

If you don't know much about the Dalai Lama, there's a great documentary you should check out called 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama [iTunes]. The filmmaker poses some tough questions to the Dalai Lama about today's world and the individual's place in it, as well as presenting the viewer with an excellent biography of this remarkable man. In May of 2008 I had the honor of seeing the Dalai Lama speak in London. He's a wonderful person with an infectious laugh (and he even sounds like Yoda – no joke, check out my videos here). If his laughter doesn't win you over, perhaps the fact that he's a spiritual leader who loves and embraces technology will.

It's no secret that I'm very bullish on Apple [AAPL] stock. I've made money investing in it since 2003. But as a shareholder second and a human being first, Apple's censorship sickens me. This is capitalism at its worst. It's no mystery why Apple, along with many other tech companies, cave to China's totalitarian demands: China has the largest population of consumers on the planet. Apple is gunning for many more than its existing 300,000-strong customer base of the 1.3 billion Chinese mobile handset market.

Now, I'm a realist. Apple's move isn't surprising. Though it's publicly stood up for human rights in the past, Apple exists to sell products, and a billion people is a lot of cheddar. In Steve Jobs' eyes, the goal of the company may be continued innovation (he may even be "the Dalai Lama of integration"), but there are plenty of money men at Apple and their number one concern is to grow the bottom line. China can add a lot to that bottom line. So it's no surprise when Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller shrugs off Apple's censorship with a "We continue to comply with local laws" jibe. Just go ahead and read that as "Not our problem. Anyway, do you know how much cheese is over there?"

But here's where the real problem lies. I'm a hypocrite. Things won't change until we do and I can't really convey to you just how hard that is. If you're a shareholder, as I am, you're complicit in Apple's and others decisions to cave to China (and capitalism) at the expense of human rights. I mean, I know I was downright giddy when I heard the news that Apple had come to an agreement with the Chinese government to sell the iPhone there. All I could think was ka-ching!

We may read (or in my case, write) opinion pieces like this and lament "Gosh, that censorship is just horrible" but then we look at the ten-, fifty-, one hundred-thousand, or even millions of dollars of Apple stock sitting in our brokerage accounts and think, "But, that's my nest egg and I want to see that puppy grow. What's the harm in five little apps being censored?"

The harm is this: that line of thinking doesn't change the status quo. It doesn't move the world forward. Our inaction is a form of complicity with Apple's deliberate censorship. But, as long as we don't experience the oppression first hand, what the shareholder wants will always outweigh the good of the individual – even if it's 1.3 billion individuals. I'd like to believe that I think mindfully; that I'm strong enough morally to sell my Apple stock as a show of solidarity for the greater good... but am I? Are you?

We are all cogs in the wheel.

Still, it's the end of the year, and I don't want my last post of the first decade of the twenty-first century stopping on a depressing note. So, I'll wish you all a Happy New Year now and leave you with this quote by the Dalai Lama (a quote which could easily apply to our conundrum):

"Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck."

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