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How Tim Cook's Stand Over Digital Privacy Could Define Apple's Future


Now let's consider the man who's front and center in this national debate, Apple's CEO. NPR's Laura Sydell looks at the company under Tim Cook.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Looking back at Tim Cook's public appearances in the last few years makes the standoff with the government look almost inevitable. Here he is at a cyber security summit speaking in front of President Obama at a time when tech companies were on edge following Edward Snowden's revelations about hacking by the NSA.


TIM COOK: If those of us in positions of responsibility fail to do everything in our power to protect the right of privacy, we risk something far more valuable than money. We risk our way of life.

SYDELL: And Tim Cook has not been afraid to confront the government on issues he considers morally important. Last year, he wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post speaking out against state legislation that he believed would let businesses deny services to gay, lesbian and transgender people. Cook himself came out as gay in the pages of Bloomberg Businessweek.

NEIL SEIBERT: Tim Cook is much more comfortable than many CEOs taking stances on issues that impact all of us.

SYDELL: Analyst Neil Seibert founded the website Above Avalon which follows Apple. Under Cook's leadership, Apple is now using 100 percent renewable energy in the U.S. and China, and it's worked to improve conditions at its manufacturing plants in China.

SEIBERT: It's about trying to tell the world certain ideals that represent Apple.

SYDELL: Even under Apple founder Steve Jobs, the company did emphasize values. Remember the Think Different ad campaign that used pictures of the Dalai Lama, Amelia Earhart, Mahatma Gandhi? But Jobs focused on the integrity of Apple's products. Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan, Ross School of Business sees a change under Cook.

ERIK GORDON: Apple's a different company. It just doesn't seem to have that excitement that it used to have. The new products are not knocking people out, and you know, the CEO is not providing that kind of leadership.

SYDELL: Under Cook, Apple has a new product line with the Apple Watch, but it hasn't generated the kind of excitement that the iPod, iPhone or iPad did. Still, Cook can't be called a failure. Under his leadership, the company released a larger version of the iPhone to record sales. Kellie McElhaney, a professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, says Cook has a great team of people, and unlike Jobs, he delegates.

KELLIE MCELHANEY: Let's not forget. He's not operating alone. He has a very intelligent, quite-capable, quite-successful senior leadership team who's obviously at the table with him. He's got a trove of advisers.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) Oh, freedom.

SYDELL: This week, protesters lined up in front of Apple stores nationwide to show support for the company's stance on privacy.

MALKIA CYRIL: The FBI is reaching for power, and I want to hear you say, hell no.


CYRIL: Say, hell no.


CYRIL: Say, hell no.


SYDELL: Malkia Cyril of the Center for Media Justice says as an African-American activist, she's aware of the history of government surveillance of black activists, and that's why Apple's got her support. Cyril does own an iPhone.

CYRIL: What makes sense to me is that encryption is good business. That's the bottom line. Keeping customers safe is good business, and Apple knows that. Good for them.

SYDELL: In many ways, Apple CEO Tim Cook has been saying that and more for many years. He's said you don't have to choose between doing good and doing well. But only a few dozen people were lined up outside the Apple Store in San Francisco. That's nothing compared to the hundreds and thousands that line up for new products. Cook is taking a gamble here. Polls remain divided on whether Apple has the support of the American people. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.
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