Google joins Apple in probing Saudi app that lets men control where women travel, as pressure piles
Google has joined Apple in promising to investigate a Saudi app that lets men control women’s travel, as pressure from rights groups and international lawmakers builds on the tech giants.
“A Google spokesman confirmed that the company is assessing the app to determine if it is in accordance with its policies,” The Times reported.
Google and Apple have failed to respond to repeated requests for comment from Business Insider.
Business Insider’s sister website INSIDER revealed details about Absher earlier this month and published criticism from human-rights groups, which triggered US politicians to call on the tech giants to rethink the app.
Numerous high-profile US politicians condemned Apple and Google on Wednesday. They called on the tech giants to kill the service from their app stores.
“Absher is a patriarchal weapon: it allows Saudi men to track women, restrict their travel, and enable human rights violations,” the Democratic Party Caucus’s vice chair, Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, tweeted.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York also tweeted: “An app available on Google/Apple’s App store helps Saudi Arabia enforce its guardianship system that doesn’t allow women to travel without permission from a male guardian. No company should help w/ oppression of women!”
Maloney also encouraged the hashtag “#DropTheAPP.”
On Tuesday, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon wrote to Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai demanding that they “immediately remove” Absher from the App Store and Google Play.
The app “flies in the face of the type of society you both claim to support and defend,” Wyden wrote. “American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy,” he said, calling the Saudi system of control over women “abhorrent.”
“Apps like this one can facilitate human rights abuses, including discrimination against women,” Rothna Begum, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, said.
“There’s a definite tragedy in the world’s most technologically progressive platforms, Apple and Google, facilitating the most archaic misogyny,” Yasmine Mohammed, an activist who campaigns and writes on women’s rights, said.
European and Australian lawmakers pile on
Lawmakers outside the US chimed in as well, with Dutch MP Kees Verhoeven tweeting: “Apple and Google offer the Saudi government app Absher, which limits the freedom of women to travel.” He added it was right for Amnesty and Human Rights Watch to “call the tech giants to reconsider offering them!”
Sen. Eric Abetz of Australia published a detailed press releasecondemning Google and Apple for hosting the app. “This app is being used as a tool of oppression and to restrict the free movement of people in Saudi Arabia,” the release said.
The UK government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office would not condemn the app directly but said it wanted to see an end to the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia, which the app encourages.
“We continue to call for an end to the guardianship system to allow women to fully participate in Saudi society,” a representative of the office said.
Addressing the specific travel function on Absher, Renate Künast, the chairwoman of Germany’s Alliance ’90/The Greens party, tweeted: “Why do @Apple & @Google condone this? @GoogleDE Are you campaigning against it?”
Her ministerial colleague Tabea Rößner tweeted: “Don’t be evil! -Experience shows, however, companies that are concerned with maximizing profits have no conscience.”
Concerning the app’s travel-permissions function, Nate Schenkkan, the director for special research at the human-rights group Freedom House, tweeted that “technology can be used to reinforce oppressive social structures.”
The app raises awkward questions for Apple and Google, two of the biggest players in Silicon Valley, where tech firms have well-established links to Saudi Arabia.
Both firms hosted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last year. The crown prince got a rare tour inside the $5 billion Apple Park campus, in California, which included face time with Cook and other top executives.