Western companies operating in their home countries generally strive to stay committed to Western values when it comes to making decisions that could impact people’s rights and freedom of accessing the internet. However, when they operate in tyrannical countries like China, where there is a lucrative market of more than 800 million internet users, they put their Western values aside in favor of economic gains.
China famously censors the internet within its borders, preventing its citizens from accessing most major internet services used in the West, such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc. Because of the Chinese Regime’s Internet censorship, many citizens and visitors have turned to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) as a means to access the sites and content that have been banned by the government. As a countermeasure, China has pushed companies to register their App Stores with government regulators or remove content that it deems sensitive. In recent years, the Chinese state has further strengthened its repressive powers by introducing a new “data localization” law, which forces all internet and communication companies to store Chinese users’ data on the country’s mainland – making it more accessible to Chinese authorities.
Surprisingly, Apple, unlike Google and Facebook, has continued to operate in China; They abided by local laws that require the company to store user data on Chinese servers. For example, in late 2017, Apple admitted to U.S. senators that it had removed from its App Store in China more than 600 “virtual private network” apps that allow users to evade censorship and online spying. But the company never disclosed the apps it removed – nor did it reveal other services it had pulled from its App Store at the behest of China’s authoritarian government.
TechCrunch recently reported that, Apple has, for the first time, published the number of requests it has received from governments to take down apps from its App Store. In its latest transparency report (see page 18), the tech giant said it received 80 requests from 11 countries to remove 634 apps from its localized app stores between July 1 to December 31, 2018. Apple didn’t list the apps that were removed but noted in most cases why the apps were pulled. China made up the bulk of the requests, seeking to remove 517 apps claiming they violated its so-called “gambling” and “pornography” laws. (That’s in addition to the 600 “virtual private network” apps (VPNs) Apple confessed to blocking in 2017). The move comes more than a year after the company promised to publish the figures starting with this latest transparency report.
According to a recent report from The Telegraph, Beijing’s monitoring of the App Store was far more heavy-handed than in other countries. The 517 app removals in China compared to just 117 in the rest of the world combined. It pointed out that the latest transparency report also revealed a jump in Chinese government requests for information about people’s devices, which can include who owns them and what purchases have been made with it. The Chinese government requested data on 137,595 Apple devices in the second half of last year, up from 30,764 in the preceding six months, although Apple said this was largely down to tax fraud investigations.
Furthermore, The Intercept reported that, In addition to the hundreds of VPN apps, Apple is currently preventing its users in China from downloading apps from news organizations, including the New York Times, Radio Free Asia, Tibetan News, and Voice of Tibet. It is also blocking censorship circumvention tools like Tor and Psiphon; Google’s search app and Google Earth; an app called Bitter Winter, which publishes news on human rights and religious freedoms in China; and an app operated by the Central Tibetan Authority, which provides information about Tibetan human rights and social issues.
Apple’s compliance with the Chinese law may not be illegal per se; Apple does so at the pretext of its App Store review guidelines, which state: “Apps must comply with all legal requirements in any location where you make them available.” However, the Chinese Communist Regime(CPP) is no stranger to brutal repression. In fact, it is infamous in committing every kind of human rights violations possible since its establishment in 1949. Having said that, are Apple’s profits more important than the lives of the millions of Uighurs, Tibetans and Chinese rights activists surveilled and detained?
At the pinnacle of CPP’s human rights violations in the 21rst century is its brutal and genocidal crimes against the Uighurs in the China-occupied East Turkistan. The Chinese regime is currently detaining millions of Uighur Muslims in mass internment camps and holding thousands of Tibetans as political prisoners. However, very little is known to the world about the reality of those concentration camps as China prevents journalists or human rights organizations from visiting the region. With the enormous surveillance system of the government of China and the unavailability of censorship circumvention programs such as VPNs, it’s almost impossible for activists to evade censorship and surveillance in order to report human rights abuses, without putting themselves in even greater danger. By complying with the censorship demands of the Chinese government, Apple is helping the Chinese Regime. And, Uighurs are the ones that pay the highest price for Apple’s irresponsible actions purely driven by economic interest.
Call for Action:
An important and fruitful action is to raise awareness about the reckless decisions of Western companies operating in China. Reem Suleiman and the team at SumOfUs are doing this and more. Previously, around 86,000 SumOfUs members around the world demanded that Google drop its controversial Dragonfly Project, a censored search engine tool for China. And Google listened! This was a huge victory and it demonstrated the power of ordinary people when united as one body. Here is an opportunity to do the same with Apple: Demand Apple protects its users from the government of China’s censorship and surveillance by signing the petition, “Apple: Stop coddling China’s censorship machine”.