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Apple investors debate political diversity at annual shareholder meeting

CEO Tim Cook takes questions from investors about privacy, politics and new products.

James Martin/CNET

Should Apple have more "ideological diversity" on its board?

That was the question facing CEO Tim Cook, along with Apple's board and investors, at the company's annual shareholder meeting Friday, when activist Justin Danhof pushed a proposal aimed at increasing such diversity on the company's board of directors.

"Diversity is not what someone looks like, it's the sum of what they think," Danhof said while speaking at the meeting.

Danhof, who's general counsel for the National Center for Public Policy Research, added that the tech industry's focus on increasing racial and gender diversity is "racism and sexism."

"True diversity comes from diversity of thought. There is ample evidence that the Company -- and Silicon Valley generally -- operate in ideological hegemony that eschews conservative people, thoughts and values," the center wrote in its proposal to shareholders. "This ideological echo chamber can result in groupthink that is the antithesis of diversity. This can be a major risk factor for shareholders."

The proposal was shot down, with more than 98 percent of voting shareholders casting ballots against it.

"We are open to people from all walks of life," Cook said, noting that this includes political points of view, religious beliefs and sexual orientation. He also encouraged anyone with concerns to "say something."

"We live in a very polarized world today," Cook said, adding that he doesn't believe it needs to be and that he doesn't "check people at the door" about their beliefs. He also noted that though Apple is pro-immigration, pro-environment and pro-privacy, he doesn't see that as politics. "For us, we focus on policy things."

The dustup was the latest in a series of debates that have spread across Silicon Valley over the past couple of years as tech companies and their leaders increasingly speak out against President Donald Trump and far-right extremism. Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter in particular have come under fire for banning some activists for what the companies say is inciting harassment and spreading hate. Cook in particular has spoken out on issues such as immigration and gay rights.

During the debate, another shareholder raised concerns that after the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Apple donated $1 million to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which the shareholder called a hate group (the SPLC regularly studies and releases reports about hate groups around the US).

Caanan Reiersgaard, a different Apple shareholder and a business consultant from Seattle, said he was "shocked" to hear the remark about the SPLC. Reiersgaard voted against the center's proposal and said he appreciated Cook's statements, calling the CEO "courageous" to speak up about these issues in this politically divisive time.

When contacted about the "hate group" characterization, the SPLC called it absurd. "It's a ridiculous allegation," the group's president, Richard Cohen, said in a statement. "Our process for identifying hate groups parallels the process used by federal and state lawmakers to identify hate crimes. The fact that we call out groups for their hatred doesn't make us the haters."

Concern about political views was just one of several items Cook discussed with shareholders in attendance at the company's Steve Jobs Theater on its "spaceship" Apple Park campus. He also touted the Apple Watch and its success in helping identify people's heart issues, and the popularity of AirPods, which he called a "cultural phenomenon."

He also answered a question on privacy issues, saying that he believes privacy is "ingrained in the Constitution" but that he's worried about how other companies have built detailed digital profiles of people. "We think regulation is necessary," he added. "It's not just a marketing thing; this is who we are."

Elephant in the room

What wasn't directly discussed however, was Apple's iPhone. The blockbuster device may've ignited the smartphone revolution and Apple's bottle-rocket growth, but it's recently been a drag on the company's sales performance. Consumers broadly appear to be suffering from phone fatigue, analysts say, prompting them to hold onto their devices longer. That's easy when annual updates feel less revolutionary, and price tags are greater than those on laptops. The iPhone may've turned Apple into one of the world's most valuable companies, but now people are asking what's next.

Apple's competitors are placing their bets on foldable phones. Over the past couple of weeks, Samsung, Huawei, TCL and Xiaomi have all announced or shown off new phones that unfurl into tablets. These new devices also come with hefty price tags, including one that reaches $2,600, but they offer a glimpse of where the tech industry is heading. And they're undeniably exciting.

Apple may also have plans for its own take on a foldable phone. A few weeks ago, it filed designs with the US Patent and Trademark Office for an "electronic device" with a "flexible display" that can fold both in half and in thirds. When, or even if, it's coming is anyone's guess. 

At the meeting, shareholders didn't get a clear answer as to where Apple is headed. (They rarely do.) They did, however, approve all the company's board members for another term, including former US Vice President Al Gore and Disney CEO Bob Iger.

First published March 1, 11:13 a.m. PT.
Updates, 11:18 a.m.: Adds shareholder comments; 3:17 p.m.: Includes statement from SPLC.