7 Bipartisan Lawmakers Urge Apple to Reinstate Hong Kong Protestor App

A group of seven lawmakers from the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have written a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook urging him to reinstate the HKMap.live app that was used by Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors to avoid police. According to Reuters, the group separately urged Activision’s Blizzard to reinstate players who had voiced support for democracy in Hong Kong, only to be fired by Blizzard.

The lawmakers are a bipartisan group, including Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Tom Cotton (R-AR),  and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Tom Gallagher (R-WI), and Tom Malinowski (D-NJ). That is the definition of a bipartisan group representing politicians from the wings of both parties, as well as more centrist politicians.

Senator Wyden posted the letter to his website.

The app in question—HKMap.live—was used by Hong King pro-democracy protestors to avoid police using crowd sourced data. Apple pulled the app, then reinstated the app, and then pulled the app again. Tim Cook wrote a letter to employees rationalizing the decision to pull it using the argument that criminals were using the app to target the police and/or commit crimes. His letter completely omitted any mention of pro-democracy protestors also using the app.

As we discussed on TMO’s Daily Observations last week, Apple’s decision appears to be at odds with the company’s stated position on such things as human rights, and that’s what these lawmakers said, too. From the letter:

Late last year, you were widely quotes as saying, ‘At Apple we are not afraid to say that our values drive our curation decisions.’ For those of us who support the promotion of basic human rights and dignity, it was refreshing to hear a tech titan say that priorities were more important than profits. So you can imagine our disappointment to read that Apple had removed HKMap[.live], a crowdsourced mapping app widely used by Hong Kong residents, from the App Store this week.

[…]

The Chinese government is growing more aggressive in its attempts to dictate terms to U.S. corporations, as last week’s headlines involving Apple, the National Basketball Association, and Activision Blizzard make clear. Cases like these raise real concern about whether Apple and other large U.S. corporate entities will bow to growing Chinese demands rather than lose access to more than a billion Chinese consumers.

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.

That is a smackdown, and a well-deserved one. It’s a strongly worded letter striking right at the heart of the issues and principles at stake. I hope Tim Cook takes note and reconsiders his decisions on this issue.

One thought on “7 Bipartisan Lawmakers Urge Apple to Reinstate Hong Kong Protestor App

  • Bryan:

    At the outset, let me state that this is less a response to your editorial than it is to the chorus of calls for Apple, or any company, to ‘stand up’ to China, or any nation, for that matter.

    At the risk of repetition, permit me to posit that if our argument and riposte against China’s documented human rights abuses, no less than their systematic erosion of HK’s relative independence in the two system-one nation policy, is reduced to reliance on the corporate world’s resistance by open violation of Chinese law, specifically Apple refusing to remove an app that Apple’s own legal department acknowledges violates Chinese law as written, then we’re making the wrong argument, fighting the wrong fight and relying on the wrong tools. Apple’s reposting of an app in their App Store as a vehicle to protecting human rights in HK doesn’t even rise to the level of bringing a knife to a gunfight, rather more like a pea-shooter against aerial bombardment.

    Leaving aside the use of military force, which should always be a last resort, and used only under the most extreme conditions (eg NATO in Bosnia), the requisite toolset for protecting human rights is fundamentally political in nature. Corporations are commercial entities. As such, precedent and history suggests that these are poorly equipped be the vanguards of political change and the sharp end of social and legal reform. Rather, the instruments of political change are governments, and their toolkit of legislation, executive governance and jurisprudence. These can be marshalled endogenously by the host country, or more often than not when dealing with serious violations that threaten social and political stability, be externally encouraged, stimulated and even imposed via diplomacy and negotiation by the community of nations acting en bloc.

    To be clear, having a group of US congressman sending a letter to Apple encouraging them to violate Chinese law is tantamount to having one your grade school mates giving you their full legal and moral authority to go tell the headmaster or principal to take his rules and stuff them. Act on this, and your day will end badly.

    Rather, what is needed is political leadership. Where are world’s leaders? Where is the G7? Why so silent the UN Security Council? Where is the Parliament that brokered this arrangement with China? If the US congress is so concerned, where are their resolutions and supportive legislation to authorise, enforce and protect resistance by home-based corporations?

    Sending Apple or any single corporation out with virtually no backup other than moral support to take on the Chinese government will be about as symmetrical a contest as this one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5R-rbzcEM8A, and will serve the people of HK about as well.

    Make no mistake. This is not an argument that corporations should not be held to best practices and upholding human rights, and living according to their own creeds and values in the exercise of their own businesses. However, we should not expect commercial interests to effectively intervene in the politics of nation states, and affect change in matters outside of their own operations. Seldom has that ended well, notably for the corporation. Yes, they can, and have, engaged in symbolic gestures, but to what end when dealing with serious human rights violations as a function of state policy? If one is interested in supporting the people of HK, the Rohingya, the Uighur, the Kurds, the Syrians or any of a number people currently under threat, then in a representative democracy, call upon your elected representatives. That’s what they get elected, and paid, by you to do. It is not how commerce thrives and stays competitive, but it is an effective way to crash out of a market.

    This is not a question of cowardice vs courage, but of futility vs effectiveness, and bringing the right tools to the task.

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