Shareholders may force Apple to clarify how it responds to government demands that limit free speech

Shareholders may reportedly get a rare chance to grill Apple executives about how exactly the tech giant will respond to future demands from national governments or other groups that limit free speech after it took a beating for removing a map app used by Hong Kong protesters.

The Financial Times reported today that the iPhone maker faces a possible internal conflict with shareholders over its human rights policies, with consumer advocacy group SumOfUs having successfully submitted a proposal that forced Apple to provide such a description.

The non-binding resolution asks Apple to describe how it responds to government or other demands that might limit free expression or access to information. It also demands details about how Apple makes policies concerning free speech and access to information.

The SumOfUs group argues that Apple’s actions had already resulted in punishment of Hong Kongers, Tibetans and Uighur Muslims.

Apple has acquiesced to government demands that have limited individual freedom of expression. By complying with the government of China’s regime, Apple is aiding the brutal repression of Uyghurs, Tibetans and other rights activists.

Apple wanted to block a shareholder vote on the SumOfUs resolution this month, but the US Securities and Exchange Commission has denied that proposal. According to Apple’s proposal, the company is required to “follow applicable law wherever it does business and believes in engaging with governments even when there may be disagreement”.

SumOfUs added:

Our motion would force Apple to stand accountable for the impact of its decisions on the lives of innocent people. Until the corporation changes how it does business in China, it will remain complicit in some of the most brutal human rights abuses in the world today.

And what might of all this amount to, if anything?

The human rights proposal could hurt Apple’s high marks on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. Apple is a darling among ESG investors and the company is the largest holding of a Vanguard ESG exchange-traded fund in the US with more than $800m in total assets.

The next annual Apple shareholder meeting should take place in February.

Apple on a regular basis finds itself in hot water with Chineses authorities, which increasingly apply pressure on the Cupertino firm via unfavorable stories published by state-run media.

Apple was also forced to shut down the iBooks Store and iTunes Movies services in China a few years ago because the country’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television was interested in policing what that the Chinese people see and read.