Google, Apple, and the Saudi wife-tracking app

March 11, 2019

It’s one of those things that sounds so simple when you see a headline flash by in your Twitter stream: Apple and Google offer a smartphone app in Saudi Arabia that allows husbands to track their wives, and even prevent them from crossing the border? That’s outrageous! Why would such an app even exist, let alone be allowed in the App Store? It’s easy to see why members of Congress called for the tech giants to remove the app, and why media coverage of the issue played on this outrage. But Google said earlier this week it had decided not to remove the app from its store (it did say it will continue to review the app’s status, as did Apple). As with so many other things, however, there’s more to this issue than can be summarized in a tweet.

The app in question—known as Absher—doesn’t just allow Saudi men to track and block the movements of their wives, it also provides electronic access to a wide range of official government services, including driver’s license and passport renewals. In case you haven’t made the obvious connection, the reason this wife-tracking feature is included in a government services app is that tracking your wife is legal in Saudi Arabia. A husband is his wife’s legal guardian, and has control over her movement. If a woman is unmarried, she needs the consent of her father or brother.

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So if Google removed the Absher app from its store, it would not only be blocking a service that is completely legal in that country (whether Westerners like it or not), but also an app that provides a wide range of official government services.

It gets even more complicated. The Saudi government and various observers in that country defend the app as having a wide variety of benefits, but they weren’t the only ones encouraging Google and Apple not to rush to judgment by deleting the app. Women both inside and outside Saudi Arabia have also argued that blocking the app could be counterproductive. Why? According to advocates for Saudi women, before the app came along, the process that husbands had to go through to approve their wife’s travel was hugely complicated and time-consuming. Many husbands didn’t do it, because the paperwork required was too much trouble.

Egyptian-American author Mona Eltahawy noted on Twitter she received a message from a Saudi feminist who said that the Absher app “is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself”—the problem being the laws that make a Saudi man the legal guardian of his wife. “This app is an abomination,” the Saudi feminist continued, “but it has helped women rather than the opposite. Those who want to flee can do so with app access, but could never before with actual paperwork and the previous bureaucratic system. Absher is a horrible, horrible application, but the alternative is worse.”

This is a classic global ethics problem—one that Google, Apple, Facebook, and even Twitter have to confront regularly: the app itself, while seen as ethically reprehensible in many countries, is completely legal in the country in which it is offered, and it includes access to a variety of official government services. Apple faced a similar problem in China, when the government asked it to remove all the VPN apps from its store, because they allowed Chinese citizens to get around the Great Firewall and access banned sites. This is the law in China, and Apple complied. It stores user data in China for the same reason (something Facebook said this week it will not do because of the country’s human-rights record).

So what is the right course of action for Google? If it leaves the app, it gives the impression it doesn’t care about women’s rights. But if it removes it, Saudi women could be worse off than they were before. Being a global superpower isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.