Apple Decency Rating, 2021: 14/20


Apple scores fourteen out of twenty points – a decent rating, and the highest score of the companies we examined. No company is perfect, but Apple is more reputable than their rivals in big tech, especially when it comes to privacy.

Apple takes consumer privacy seriously, and their record is one you can trust. They have encountered issues with worker exploitation in China, but since the Foxconn scandal in 2011, they seem to have taken real steps to improve working conditions.

They did lose points on economic fairness. Although they don’t hold a monopoly on devices ,they have begun to exert an anti-competitive influence over their App Store, prompting backlash from app developers.

Before we dig further into each of these points, let’s talk about the revenue model that drives Apple’s business and the corporate ideology that guides their decision-making.

For more information, click here to read the introduction to our Tech Decency Ratings series.

Apple’s Revenue Model

Apple is a hardware company. 80% of their $274 billion annual revenue comes from hardware, with the remaining 20% coming in from digital storefronts, such as the App Store and Apple Music.

Smartphones make up the biggest portion of Apple’s hardware sales: at $138 billion, the iPhone drives half of Apple’s business. Computers, tablets, and other smart devices make up another 30%.

The remaining 20% of Apple’s revenue falls under “Services”. Most important of these is the App Store, where Apple charges a 30% cut of sales to all developers. This revenue might seem small compared to their revenue from devices, but it’s the fastest growing revenue segment for Apple, and already comprises more of Apple’s revenue than computers and tablets combined.

Though their revenue breakdown does not reflect it, Apple is as much a software company as a hardware company. When Apple sells a device, they’re also selling the built-in operating system the device contains. This software is arguably Apple’s biggest competitive advantage: people buy their products as much for the operating system as for the device itself.

Apple’s Corporate Ideology

Among big tech companies, Apple is the least clear on their governing ideology. They offer no clearly stated mission on their website, nor do they discuss the company’s internal values. If Apple does have a mission, it would likely be “to make great products”, as Steve Jobs and Tim Cook have both stated, one way or another.

Apple lists several values on its website, such as “diversity” and “environment”. But these seem more like public-facing commitments than reflections on the internal values held at Apple. “Privacy,” for instance, seems directly pointed at competitors such as Google and Facebook.

But Apple’s values might lie less in public statements than in the aesthetic it cultivates in its hardware and software. “To make great products” is a plausible mission for a company that takes so much pride in its line of devices. To that extent that these devices are the ultimate expression of Apple’s values, Apple expresses itself more like a luxury fashion brand than like a tech company.

Privacy: 4/5

We rate Apple a four out of five on privacy. They offer far better privacy controls than their competitors. Apple is a hardware company, not an advertising company, and they do not need to rely on the sale of personal data to make money. Their hardware business is robust, and it’s unlikely they would jeopardize it by wading into the controversial market of personal data.

Let’s compare Apple to Google, their biggest competitor on the smartphone market. Google offers privacy settings on its Android phones, but many of these controls are deceptive: you can turn off personalized ads, for instance, but Google will continue to track you and maintain a profile on you for advertising purposes.

When you turn off ad tracking on the iPhone, on the other hand, it actually changes your device’s advertising ID to a string of zeroes. Because all other iPhone owners using this feature also show up as a string of zeroes, this information becomes practically useless for tracking purposes.

Overall, Apple has embraced a philosophy of informed, positive consent. They believe that users should be informed of tracking in clear terms, and given the option to opt in or out. In 2021, they are extending this approach to third party apps. Now, all apps will come with labels clearly stating how they collect and use data. Not only that, but apps will need to ask for clear permission to track iPhone users.

So far, the standard practice in tech has been to loot personal data without asking for permission or clearly informing users how their data may be used. Apple advances a different paradigm: instead, users must be clearly informed up front and given a real choice in how their data can or can’t be used.

Although Apple does not sell customer data, it does sell access to iPhone users to some of the most data-hungry companies in tech. In exchange for roughly $10 billion, for instance, they’ve made Google the default search engine on Apple devices. Though they aren’t selling customer data directly, they are selling access to companies such as Google which can then proceed to collect customer data.

Trust: 4/5

When evaluating companies on Trust, I considered two broad criteria. First, how responsible has the company been to their customers? And how honest has the company been to its customers and to the general public? Can you take a company at their word?

Apple impressed on both fronts. They’ve had no major breaches in recent years. Their products have earned a well-deserved reputation for security. By every measure, they take their responsibility to their customers very seriously.

They have also been largely forthright with the public. Where all three big tech companies have recently been caught lying to Congress, it’s harder to make the case that Tim Cook and other Apple representatives have been dishonest in their testimony. Cook has made some statements that weren’t quite accurate regarding the App Store – more on that in a minute – but unlike the other big tech CEOs, he does not seem to have told outright lies to Congress or the public.

Fairness: 2/5

Apple does not hold a clear-cut monopoly. When it comes to their main business in smart devices, they have robust competition from Google, Samsung, Amazon, and plenty of other companies.

But increasingly, Apple has exerted unfair and anti-competitive measures on the iOS App Store. There, they leverage a steep 30% cut of all sales made through third-party apps. For a long time, many apps have avoided this by asking people to sign up outside of the app itself.

In the past year, Apple has begun to crack down on this behavior. Many have criticized this enforcement as inconsistent and self-serving. In the words of Horacio Gutierrez, the top lawyer for Spotify: “Apple continues to move the goal posts and change the rules to its advantage and the detriment of developers.”

This behavior has prompted a coalition of developers, including companies such as Spotify, Epic Games, and the Match group, to push for more openness. These developers make a strong point: the control Apple exerts over third-party apps is anti-competitive, and deserving of regulatory scrutiny.

Impact: 4/5

Apple’s biggest impact is the iPhone itself, which turned smartphones into a mainstream technology. Fifteen years ago, very few people carried a computer around in their pocket; now, everyone does. Though smartphones have brought plenty of negatives to go along with the positives, it at least feels like a step forward.

Meanwhile, Apple has come under fire for exploiting workers in China and other countries, especially after a string of suicides and other worker deaths in the early 2010s. Since then, Apple has enforced a code of conduct, routinely auditing its suppliers to maintain a higher standard of working conditions.

These reforms seem to have worked. I can’t tell you that Apple does not exploit workers – on some level, all tech companies and products do – but there have been no recent reports of anything close to the conditions at Foxconn a decade ago.

Recently, Apple has also begun enforcing a new standard of privacy in consumer technology. No other company has done much to advance the notion of informed, positive consent to corporate surveillance. Arguably, Apple has done a better job than the federal government at giving back basic privacy rights to smartphone users.

Apple’s record hasn’t always been perfect. But from everything we can tell, Apple has worked to resolve its labor issues. And they’ve done a better job looking out for consumers than any other big tech company. For this we give Apple four out of five on Impact.

Final Score: 14/20 (Decent)

Overall, Apple scored fourteen out of twenty points. That’s not only a “Decent” rating, it’s the highest score of any of the tech companies we reviewed.

Apple takes Privacy far more seriously than any of their competitors. Where other companies will loot sensitive information without even telling you about it, Apple insists on informing users up front and offering them a clear yes-or-no choice. They’ve also proven trustworthy, with a very clean record on security breaches and data leaks.

The most serious criticism of Apple involves their collecting of rents on the App Store. Not only is 30% a steep cut of revenue, they’ve been inconsistent and unfair when it comes to enforcement. Together with Google, Apple holds monopolistic control over smartphone apps. This is one area where regulation could help open smaller businesses.

Apple has also faced criticism over their exploitation of Chinese labor. But the greatest concerns here seem to have been resolved, as their recent track record reflects. This is an encouraging sign: Apple worked to resolve the issue, rather than make the same mistake over and over again.

How Apple Compares to Other Big Tech Companies

Apple’s fourteen out of twenty puts it ahead of its rivals in big tech, almost across the board:

Total:Privacy:Trust:Fairness:Impact:Full Article:
Amazon7/201/53/52/51/5Click here
Apple14/204/204/202/204/20Click here
Facebook3/200/51/51/50/5Click here
Google7/201/53/51/52/5Click here

For more information, see our Big Tech Decency Ratings hub.

How Should Consumers Think About Apple?

Any privacy-minded person should consider switching to Apple products if they haven’t done so already. Apple takes privacy far more seriously than any other big tech company does, and your personal data will be far more secure with Apple than on their competitors’ devices.

That said, owning Apple products does not automatically protect your data. Make sure to carefully go over Apple’s privacy and security settings. Apple affords users greater control over their privacy, but these controls do little good if you don’t make use of them.

If you’re concerned with fairness, you’ll have a tough time finding a smartphone company that does not engage in unfair practices. But no matter what smartphone you own, you can still throw your support behind the Coalition for App Fairness. These issues are too big to be solved by any one consumer on their own – if you want change, it’s best to throw your weight behind a group effort pushing for action.

About the Author

Find Michael on LinkedIn

Michael X. Heiligenstein

Michael X. Heiligenstein is the founder and managing editor of the Firewall Times. He has six years of experience in online publishing and marketing. Before founding the Firewall Times, he was Vice President of SEO at Fit Small Business, a website devoted to helping small business owners. He graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in English and History.

Leave a Comment