A feature designed to protect user privacy may damage Apple’s government relations in the future. Examining the tech company’s role in exacerbating internet censorship, and the commercial cost of ethics.

Apple’s latest privacy feature is further splitting the company in two, as it is forced to make difficult decisions about whether it can fulfil its mission as a privacy leader and protect its global reach and revenue. Its decisions could deteriorate its position in the future, if governments see it as a company that can be controlled.

The iPhone maker announced a string of additional privacy protections for users at its annual software developer conference last week, including a feature designed to obscure a user’s web browsing from internet service providers and advertisers.

The ‘private relay’ feature strips IP addresses from web traffic, instead assigning a temporary IP address to users. It is designed to tackle non-consensual tracking techniques such as ‘fingerprinting’, and prevent advertisers from using IP addresses to pinpoint a person’s location. Google is working on a similar feature called ‘Willful IP Blindness’.

Apple has said that this feature will not be made available to users in 10 markets: China, Belarus, Colombia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkmenistan, and Uganda. Most of these markets surveil and censor the internet, as well as banning the use of technology such as encryption or virtual private networks (VPNs) that inhibit their ability to do so. If Apple wants to continue to operate in these markets, it has to tailor its services.

But by doing so, spectators believe it is undermining its core belief that “privacy is a fundamental human right”. Should Apple market itself as a privacy-first business, while it supports governments that do not recognise an individual’s right to privacy?

“Looking at the way Apple has successfully marketed privacy as a feature and service of its devices, it’s clear users value the privacy proposition. Apple’s move to limit privacy features in some markets opens it to criticism in other markets by regulators, competitors and consumers, who may believe that Apple is not fully committed to its privacy promise,” says Joshua Lowcock, global brand safety officer at UM Worldwide.

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