Apple's under unprecedented pressure as it prepares iPhone 13 launch

The tech giant is fighting regulation in South Korea, a courtroom case in California and employee revolts -- and it's all tied to social media, Slack and the App Store.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
7 min read

Apple's facing waves of employee activism over sexual harassment and other toxic workplace issues.

James Martin/CNET

Cher Scarlett is a senior-level software engineer who initially learned programming by reading the code in websites she liked. Scarlett was hired to work for Apple about a year and a half ago, but she's been doing a lot more than coding the past few months. She's attempted to organize an internal employee compensation survey, publicized worker complaints and helped draft an open letter to CEO Tim Cook criticizing working conditions. Now she and a growing group of people are at the center of one of Apple's biggest reckonings about how it treats its own employees and whether it lives up to the ideals of diversity, inclusion and tolerance that Cook and his executives espouse.

Scarlett is part of a burgeoning movement called #AppleToo, created to change Apple's culture. Many of them believe Apple's revered and often-emulated approach to extreme secrecy has a downside. Apple created world-changing devices including the iPod and iPhone by siloing teams and teaching them to never reveal their work -- even to their colleagues. But critics say the 45-year-old company, co-founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1976, also created an environment where people seem terrified to blow the whistle on bad behavior, including sexual harassment, pay discrimination and other hostile work conditions.

"Cultures that heavily reward loyalty create this perfect storm where you're kind of expected to 'keep it in the family,'" Scarlett said in an interview this month. She and other current and former Apple employees have turned to social media to share frustrations about the company's culture. On Medium, Scarlett has published some of her co-workers' stories of sexual harassment, assault and racism that appeared to be ignored by management. "We have some very bad actors taking advantage to prey on vulnerable people. We need change. We need it now," one anonymous employee wrote in a post Scarlett published.

Employees aren't the only ones taking Apple to task. Lawmakers, regulators, competitors and activists around the globe are bearing down on Cook and the company from a multitude of angles, including new laws, investigations, antitrust trials and letter-writing campaigns. In every case, they're pushing Apple to change fundamental business practices. This pressure, coming on multiple fronts and from inside and out, underscores that even Apple, with its horde of loyal fans, isn't immune to the backlash facing the tech industry. It's just one of many giants, including Amazon , Google and Facebook , under siege as more people begin to question just how much power and influence they hold over our lives. 

Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies, said the scrutiny has come in part because of how deeply tech is woven into modern life and the revelations that some companies have abused that power. "It's the time we're in," she said. "We are more aware."


Google has seen hundreds of employees take their protests public.

James Martin/CNET

While Facebook, Google and Amazon have had their own share of struggles over the years, including employee protests and government investigations into their business practices, it's unusual to see Apple facing so much public scrutiny at once.

Until recently, Apple seemed above the fray. But even a company with tremendous power, and an iconic mantra like "Think Different," can only escape from so much.

Now the $2.4 trillion company is under the microscope like never before. And it's happening during a once-in-a-century pandemic and economic catastrophe. And just as Apple's about to start selling the iPhone 13, its most important product release of the year.

Apple declined to discuss individual employee matters, citing privacy of anyone involved. "We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace," an Apple spokesman said in a statement. "We take all concerns seriously and we thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised."

Surprising unrest


Apple employees have pushed back on the company's return-to-office plans.

Óscar Gutiérrez/CNET

The roots of the employee activism Apple's now facing appear to trace back to the instant messaging service Slack. As The Verge, CNN and The New York Times have reported, the corporate-focused app Salesforce bought last year for nearly $28 billion broke communication walls between various teams at Apple. Soon employees were drawing responses from across the company as they discussed issues in group chats for people in a certain locale or designed to talk about remote work.

A former senior engineering program manager, Ashley Gjovik, said her struggles with the company began when she raised concerns about workplace safety, which led to issues around workplace harassment and discrimination as well. She said Apple retaliated against her, and so she turned to co-workers on Slack in July.

"I kind of lost faith in them," Gjovik said of Apple's human resources and employee resources teams. Soon, she said co-workers were sharing about their experiences too.

Gjovik wasn't alone. Some groups of Apple employees had already begun organizing on Slack, Twitter, Discord and other places to discuss issues and begin asking for changes to the company's work culture. Group letters to management were leaked to the press, too. One of the letters leaked earlier in the year, in May, criticized Apple's hiring of Antonio Garcia-Martinez, a former Facebook product manager who'd written a book in which he called women in the San Francisco Bay Area "soft and weak, cosseted and naive despite their claims of worldliness, and generally full of shit." Apple parted ways with him in response.

Then the employees began pushing back on Apple's efforts to set a minimum number of days employees need to be in the office as it prepared to reopen with the easing of the pandemic. Apple's plans have since been delayed to next year.

Earlier this month, a group of employees published an open letter to Cook and the company's senior leadership, asking the tech giant to improve how it treats its 160,000 employees and "fulfill its promise of inclusion, diversity and equity."

In the letter, the group asked for increased privacy over personal information; transparent and fair compensation; an audit of all relationships with other companies; increased accountability across leadership and human resource teams; and a process for sharing group concerns. The letter also asks for a reinvestigation of all reports of "racism, discrimination, abuse, harassment, concerted activity suppression and retaliation" at Apple.

They published the letter on their website, AppleToo, an indirect reference to the #MeToo movement that gained traction following revelations of sexual harassment and assault by disgraced former Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Scarlett has become a public face of AppleToo; Gjovik tweeted that though she's not associated with the group specifically, she supports their effort.

Scarlett and Gjovik have filed separate complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, which confirmed it's investigating. Gjovik's also received approval by California and the US civil rights agencies to sue. Scarlett currently works for Apple as a software engineer, but the company fired Gjovik earlier this month for allegedly leaking confidential product-related information, according to Gizmodo and Bloomberg, reportedly adding that she'd also failed to cooperate during the "investigatory process." (Gjovik earlier said she didn't know the specifics about the "confidential information" she was accused of disclosing.)

The outcome of these complaints could take weeks, months or "much longer," as the NLRB says on its site.

Under pressure


Apple CEO Tim Cook has been grilled by lawmakers on Capitol Hill and a judge overseeing an antitrust trial.


While Apple faces pressure from employees, it's also finding itself increasingly tangled up in legal proceedings and political debates at home and abroad. In South Korea, the legislature passed a law attempting to force changes to restrictions Apple and Google put on their app stores, including a rule that additional purchases made inside an app be processed by the companies. Epic Games, maker of the hit online battle title Fortnite sued Apple over its App Store as well, arguing it should reverse rules preventing outside app stores or unapproved apps from running on iPhones or iPads . Epic largely lost the court battle in a Sept. 10 ruling, though it's appealing the decision.

Activists and advocates have also begun pressing the company on privacy concerns. Earlier this year, thousands signed open letters pushing Apple to abandon new technology it designed to fight child exploitation -- features they worry could be twisted into tools of mass surveillance. (Apple this month decided to delay that technology's release, a move that upset child safety advocates, without giving a new timeline.)

Apple, meanwhile, has continued to pump out new products, announcing an updated iPad Mini, Apple Watch Series 7 and iPhone 13 during a highly produced 80-minute video presentation last week. In his review of the iPhone 13, CNET's Patrick Holland said Apple "delivers a delightful upgrade," praising the cameras and battery life in particular.

Analysts expect the smartphone to lead the company's lineup, selling about 82 million units during the holiday shopping season, according to AB Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi. That would put sales roughly in line with Apple's record last year after releasing the iPhone 12.

Cook headlined the Sept. 14 event introducing the new products as he has for the last decade since being named CEO, succeeding Jobs. Hearing him excitedly discuss Apple's upcoming products and his company's "uniqueness," you'd have never known so many dark clouds hung over him.

"It's an extraordinary time to be at Apple," he said.

Update, 11:20 a.m. PT: Adds clarification about Gjovik's employment and details around circumstances of her firing.