State of the Art: Apple’s Silence in China Sets a Dangerous Precedent


Whatever Apple may have done in private to fight the Chinese internet law, the company has not offered a peep of criticism in public. Apple’s only public statement on the VPN ban said that the company had been “required to remove some VPN apps in China that do not meet the new regulations,” but noted that the “apps remain available in all other markets where they do business.” Despite the pulldown, Apple says there are still hundreds of VPN apps available on its Chinese app store, some of which remain unregistered with the government.

Search Apple’s website for a letter from Mr. Cook issuing a public rebuke of China’s intrusion into his customers’ privacy and freedom of expression — you won’t find it. The company has not fully tested its political and economic leverage in China. It hasn’t tested the public’s immense love of its products. It hasn’t publicly threatened any long-term consequences — like looking to other parts of the world to manufacture its products.

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Apple has agreed to remove VPN apps from its Chinese app store.

Credit
European Pressphoto Agency

The company’s silence may be tactical; the Chinese government, the conventional thinking goes, does not take well to public rebuke. Yet Apple’s quiet capitulation to tightening censorship in one of its largest markets is still a dangerous precedent.

“Apple’s response is tremendously disappointing,” said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights advocacy group. “I think it’s possible that Apple is playing a bigger role behind the scenes here. But the problem with that is, from the outside it looks exactly like doing nothing.”

This isn’t just a blow for the liberties of Apple’s customers in China. Authoritarian governments have a tendency to copy what works. Russia just passed a law curbing VPNs. Early this year, Apple pulled down The New York Times app in the Chinese App Store, and both Apple and Google removed the LinkedIn app from their Russian app stores. In the United States, President Trump has called for greater legal measures against the press. And he took the F.B.I.’s side in that fight over iPhones. What happens in China doesn’t stay in China.

It may be naïve to expect Apple to publicly take on the Chinese government. Sure, it may be the world’s most valuable company, with extensive investments and operations in China. But Apple is also just a foreign company — it must obey local laws, and it must watch for its bottom line. The Chinese market accounts for a quarter of Apple’s sales, and many analysts see the region as a key growth area for the company. So what was Apple supposed to do? Jeopardize its operations over a few apps?

What’s more, Apple’s silence isn’t unusual. While American tech companies frequently criticize decisions by American officials, they appear loath to do so in China. This weekend, Amazon also began banning VPN services from the Chinese version of its cloud-computing platform, called AWS. Facebook, has been exploring ways of getting into the Chinese government’s good graces. Google pulled many of its services out of the Chinese market in 2010, blaming censorship, but it has lately been mulling ways to get back.

There is also a moral defense of Apple’s decision to give in without a public fight: Despite the VPN ban, Chinese internet users might still be better off with Apple in China than with it outside. Its app store still provides people access to millions of apps that they might not find elsewhere in China. And Apple’s own communications apps in China remain free of government censorship. For instance, Messages, Apple’s texting app, and FaceTime, its video and phone-calling app, are protected by end-to-end encryption, allowing Chinese users to communicate freely.

But that may be of limited utility.

“It will only get worse,” said Xiao Qiang, a Chinese human rights activist and an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Information. Mr. Xiao sees the latest crackdowns as the beginning of a new wave of internet censorship in China. And he doesn’t buy the argument that saying something publicly would have backfired for Apple.

“They should say something,” he said. “They are a U.S. company, after all. And they’re a global company, upholding standards of privacy and speech in many, many markets outside China. So if they have to do things differently in China, they should have some public explanation for why — because that attitude could matter globally, including in the U.S.”

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