Apple and Google mum amid outrage over Saudi wife-tracking app

The application is available through the tech giants’ marketplaces, and social media users are lambasting the companies for their involvement—and tacit condoning of women’s oppression.

Your reputation is tied to your product line.

Your company might be known for great customer service and high-end technology, but if you are peddling software that crosses a moral or ethical line for your consumers, expect backlash.

This has been true for tech companies Apple and Google, which support app marketplaces. Even though they don’t create the apps, consumers have held the companies responsible for products sold on the exchange.

The latest product to spark an outcry is the app Absher, an offering for the Saudi Arabia market enabling husbands to monitor their wives’ movements.

NPR reported:

The app, called Absher, was created by the National Information Center, which according to a Saudi government website is a project of the Saudi Ministry of Interior.

The description of the app in both stores says that with Absher, “you can safely browse your profile or your family members, or [laborers] working for you, and perform a wide range of eServices online.”

In Saudi Arabia, women’s lives are highly restricted. For example, according to Human Rights Watch, women have always needed permission from a male guardian, usually a father or husband, to leave the country. In the past, paper forms were required prior to travel.

The app has extensive capabilities, according to reports—and it has lots of users in the Saudi kingdom.

Gizmodo reported:

According to the Washington Post, the Saudi Interior Ministry-designed app serves as an e-government and e-services portal, including functions like requesting a passport, birth certificate, vehicle registration, or other documentation. But as a Business Insider piece last week noted, it also allows for male Saudis “to specify when and how women can cross Saudi borders, and to get close to real-time SMS updates when they travel.” Absher can be used to restrict which destinations Saudi women can travel to, as well as prevent them from traveling anywhere outside the country at all, and the SMS notification system is used to alert the men if the women try to leave on their own.

That’s a pretty big deal, given that women in Saudi Arabia live under a patriarchal “guardanship” system which requires them to be a legal dependent of a man—and get that man’s permission to attend school, manage their work and finances, marry, and travel abroad or in public. Women are also required to have male chaperones in many situations and have fewer legal rights than men, and they can be arrested for “disobedience.” Absher certainly appears to automate elements of this system, and as the Post noted, the ministry claims it has 11 million users.

The app has caught the attention of human rights activists and politicians.

NPR continued:

“It’s really designed with the men in mind,” says Rothna Begum, a senior researcher on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “Of course, it’s incredibly demeaning, insulting and humiliating for the women and downright abusive in many cases, because you’re allowing men absolute control over women’s movements.”

This week, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., sent a letter to both companies asking them to remove the app. “Saudi men can also reportedly use Absher to receive real-time text message alerts every time these women enter or leave the country or to prevent these women from leaving the country,” he wrote.

HuffPost reported:

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are calling for the app’s removal.

“The use of the Absher app to curtail the movement of women once again highlights the disturbing system of discrimination against women under the guardianship system and the need for genuine human rights reforms in the country, rather than just social and economic reform,” a spokesperson for Amnesty International said in a statement to HuffPost.

Both Google and Apple officials have been slow to offer a strong response.

NPR reported:

In an interview with NPR on Monday, Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked about Absher. “I haven’t heard about it,” he said. “But obviously we’ll take a look at it if that’s the case.”

NPR also reached out to Google, but the company has not responded.

The news has sparked outrage on social media.


What lessons does the incident have for PR pros and marketers? Here are three.

1. Understand the global marketplace.

Because of social media, what once might have been a local story can swiftly become an international crisis. Expect that actions violating consumer trust or crossing moral boundaries will meet stiff pushback online.

2. Know your products.

This isn’t the first time Apple and Google have faced backlash from items they have registered in their app marketplace.

NPR wrote:

Both Apple and Google have faced previous controversies over apps in their stores. Both stores have policies banning inappropriate content such as the promotion of hate speech, graphic violence, bullying and harassment. The companies have faced some backlash over these policies, particularly around how they might impact small businesses.

The problem seems to be particularly pressing for companies that approve items for sale with artificial intelligence or inadequate human review. Remember that consumers will hold your organization responsible for listing the item, even if you aren’t the creator or manufacturer.

3. Respond as quickly as possible.

Apple’s headlines often contained Tim Cook’s promise to investigate the app. Google declined to comment, allowing for speculation about how the app was approved for its marketplace.

It doesn’t cost much to promise to look into a brewing crisis, and offering action can do a lot to turn the tide of a PR crisis. The faster you can make a statement, the better.

What do you think of Apple’s and Google’s responses, PR Daily readers?

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