The problem of corporate complicity in China’s human rights abuses is not new. In a 2006 House human rights hearing on Google’s, Yahoo’s, Microsoft’s, and Cisco’s involvement in aiding censorship in China, company representatives argued they were not proud of their actions, yet believed the companies provide Chinese citizens with opportunities they otherwise would not have to express themselves and access information. To that, the late Rep. Tom Lantos replied, “I do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night.”
Here’s where Cook’s “realism” comes into play. China currently has an eye-popping 1.32 billion mobile phone subscribers, and Apple is struggling to compete with domestic brands such as Huawei, Oppo, and Xiaomi. Compared to last year, Apple’s revenue from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan fell 10 percent to $8 billion. Yet the region still makes up about 20 percent of Apple’s total revenue, and it holds the greatest opportunity for growth, especially as the company plans to release the iPhone 8 later this year.
Cook early in August said Apple was only following China’s laws, and that Apple can do more for China’s citizens by staying in the country: “We believe in engaging with governments even when we disagree ... because innovation really requires freedom to collaborate and communicate.” But Cook, who is openly gay, did not engage with North Carolina when its legislature passed a bill stating that people in government buildings should use restrooms and locker rooms based on their biological sex: Apple signed an amicus brief against the bill.
Last year the FBI wanted to access the iPhone of a terrorist who had been killed, yet Apple refused, saying that if it created such an operating system, it could weaken product security and expand the government’s reach. In words that would come back to haunt the company, an Apple letter to customers asked, “Should the government be allowed to order us to create other capabilities for surveillance purposes, such as recording conversations or location tracking?” Apparently, the answer is “yes” regarding China’s government.
Free Enterprise Project Director Justin Danhof on Aug. 2 issued a statement about Apple hypocrisy: “Liberal social justice CEOs such as Apple’s Tim Cook and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos like to champion human rights and stand up to local and federal governments here in the United States when it is politically expedient and the stakes are low. But when faced with pressure from a regime such as China that actively squashes the most basic of human rights—such as the right of free speech and expression—they seem all too willing to show their true colors and help keep the Chinese people in the dark.”
VPN companies and those advocating for online privacy are also upset over Apple’s hypocrisy. “We are troubled to see Apple aiding China’s censorship efforts,” ExpressVPN stated on its website after Apple took the company’s app off its App Store: “ExpressVPN strongly condemns these measures, which threaten free speech and civil liberties.”
Another popular VPN service, VyprVPN, is also gone from the App Store. VyprVPN was created by tech security company Golden Frog, which signed an amicus brief supporting Apple last year in its battle with the FBI. CEO Sunday Yokubaitis wrote on the company’s website, “We’re extremely disappointed that Apple has bowed to pressure from China to remove VPN apps without citing any Chinese law or regulation making VPNs illegal.”
Yokubaitis hoped “Apple [would] recognize Internet access as a human right” and that it “would choose human rights over profits.” He pointed out that the U.N. Human Rights Council has adopted resolutions, most recently in 2016, to protect internet free speech and condemn governments that “intentionally prevent or disrupt access” to the internet. Ironically, China is part of the Human Rights Council and approved the resolution.