Apple introduces new human rights policy after criticism of censorship in China

September 4, 2020, 11:22 AM UTC

On Friday, Apple introduced a new policy outlining its commitment to human rights and free speech after shareholders raised concerns about Apple’s ties to China and the company’s role in censoring content.

Apple’s board of directors approved the policy just before a Sept. 5 deadline for shareholders to submit motions for Apple’s 2021 investor meeting. Earlier this year, two-fifths of Apple shareholders supported a motion, which ultimately failed, that would have compelled Apple to uphold freedom of expression worldwide and submit annual reports on its human rights policies. Apple had tried to block the motion from the agenda.

The policy released Friday affirms Apple’s stated support of human rights globally, but also acknowledges the bind it’s in when local laws conflict with those values. “[Where] national law and international human rights standards differ, we follow the higher standard,” the policy says. “Where they are in conflict, we respect national law while seeking to respect the principles of internationally recognized human rights.”

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Human rights advocates heralded the new policy as groundbreaking, even as they criticized its lack of enforcement mechanisms.

“Apple’s adoption of a human rights policy is a breakthrough moment, and we commend Apple for taking this first step,” Sondhya Gupta, campaign manager at nonprofit consumer advocacy group SumOfUs, said in a statement. “However, we still have questions about how the policy will be implemented and what oversight there will be.”

The tension between Apple’s stated principles and local laws has been most apparent in China, where Apple has complied with Beijing’s demands to ban apps the government disapproves of.

In its campaign against Apple, SumOfUs cites the tech giant’s alleged role in helping Beijing censor and surveil its citizens.

Apple has removed tens of thousands of apps from its app store in China in order to comply with Chinese government rules. The purges have targeted virtual private network or VPN apps that enable users to skirt China’s Internet censorship rules and the apps of major news outlets like the New York Times that publish articles critical of the Chinese government.

Last fall, Apple also removed a Hong Kong protest-tracking app called from its Hong Kong app store one day after a Chinese state newspaper criticized Apple for hosting it. The app’s developers claimed the app fostered public safety by letting users locate and avoid confrontations between protesters and police. The Chinese newspaper argued that the app incited illegal behavior and endangered Hong Kong police.

“As a long-term shareowner, we commend Apple for its new policy and look forward to working constructively with Apple to advance digital human rights,” Steven Heim of Boston Common Asset Management said in a statement. “[But] Apple must be much more transparent regarding implementation of its new human rights policy, including transparency in its responses to requests from repressive governments.”

The new policy does not mention oversight or how Apple will track its progress, but the tech giant claims it will now be taking a more active approach on issues related to human rights and free speech.

“At Apple, we are optimistic about technology’s awesome potential for good,” CEO Tim Cook said in the report. “But we know that it won’t happen on its own.”

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