Bipartisan lawmakers voice ‘strong concern’ over Apple’s removal of Hong Kong protest app

Apple has always had to make crucial decisions in regards to China and how it handles business there, sometimes appearing to bow to the Chinese government just to make sure it can still do business there.

That is certainly the case with Apple’s most recent actions. Earlier this month, Apple pulled an app called “HKMap Live” from the Chinese App Store — not just once, but twice, with the second time actually in response to direct feedback sent from the Chinese government to Apple. (The company also pulled the news app, Quartz, from the Chinese App Store as well.)

Now, unsurprisingly, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers have sent out two letters in light of U.S.-based companies appearing to “enforce Chinese government censorship.” Ron Wyden, the United States Senator from Oregon, published an outline of the letters today on his official website.

The U.S. lawmakers reiterate the stance of the HKMap Live app’s developer, that it is a tool that allows protestors in Hong Kong to share locations, and that it became a vial tool for the demonstrators on the streets. Beyond that, the letter to Apple also states that the company has censored 2,200 apps in China related to the protests, “according to the nonprofit group GreatFire”.

You have said publicly that you want to work with China’s leaders to effect change rather than sit on the sidelines and yell at them. We, too, believe that diplomacy and trade can be democratizing forces. But when a repressive government refuses to evolve or, indeed, when it doubles down, cooperation can become complicity.

The lawmakers say that Apple’s decision to go this route, to remove the HKMap Live app and censor others, is “deeply concerning”, and request that Apple “reverse course” in an effort to show that values matter more than market.

In promoting values, as in most things, actions matter far more than words. Apple’s decisions last week to accommodate the Chinese government by taking down HKMaps is deeply concerning. We urge you in the strongest terms to reverse course, to demonstrate that Apple puts values above market access, and to stand with the brave men and women fighting for basic rights and dignity in Hong Kong.

The letters were signed by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Sen. Maro Rubio, R-Fla., Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas along with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., and Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J.

The letters were sent to not only Apple, but also Blizzard (Activision Blizzard), a video game publisher that has recently also come under fire for similar moves. In that case, Blizzard suspended a professional Hearthstone player (Ng “Blitzchung” Wai Chung) who voiced support for the Hong Kong protesters on a live stream. (Blizzard has subsequently lessened the ban on the player, and returned his earned monies for playing in the championship series, but the damage was already done.)

To Blizzard, the letter says the “disappointing decision could have a chilling effect on gamers who seek to use their platform to promote human rights and basic freedoms”.

Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, actually defended the move from Apple to pull the HKMap Live app from the Chinese App Store, saying that there had been reports (by the Chinese government) that the app was being used to target law enforcement. Cook said, in part:

It is no secret that technology can be used for good or for ill. This case is no different. The app in question allowed for the crowdsourced reporting and mapping of police checkpoints, protest hotspots, and other information. On its own, this information is benign. However, over the past several days we received credible information, from the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau, as well as from users in Hong Kong, that the app was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimize individuals and property where no police are present. This use put the app in violation of Hong Kong law. Similarly, widespread abuse clearly violates our ‌‌App Store‌‌ guidelines barring personal harm.

Apple has found itself in precarious situations with China in the past, and this is certainly no different. Whether or not the company actually changes course, though, remains to be seen.