MEDIA RELEASE: 18 December 2020
Apple has failed to enact the human rights policy it introduced in August, and has suppressed a shareholder proposal raising human rights concerns, according to a coalition of shareholders, campaigners and Tibetan, Uyghur and Hongkonger human rights defenders.
The tech giant introduced the new policy following shareholder pressure over its respect for human rights in China, including blocking apps like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) from China’s App Store that help users evade censorship and surveillance. Shareholders filed a new proposal calling on Apple to report on how it is implementing the human rights policy, but Apple’s lawyers took action to prevent the proposal being discussed or voted on. Over 150 civil society organizations representing over 18 million people worldwide today wrote to Apple CEO Tim Cook demanding Apple address human rights concerns.
Pema Doma, Students for a Free Tibet said: “By blocking the shareholder vote, Apple is trying to silence us. The company wants to brush Chinese, Uyghur, Tibetan and Hongkonger human rights under the carpet, and continues to bow to the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship demands. Apple’s hypocrisy in taking credit for its human rights policy but not backing it up with actions can’t go on any longer.”
In its human rights policy, Apple committed to respect freedom of information and expression as human rights, as well as protect people in its supply chain. However, only last month Apple was caught lobbying to undermine a bill designed to stop Uyghur forced labour in East Turkistan.
Vicky Wyatt, SumOfUs said: “We welcomed Apple’s human rights policy when it was first introduced, but it’s now clear those commitments were nothing but empty words. Apple says it values free expression, but now it’s doubling down on censorship: Apple bows to Beijing’s requests to censor its own customers, and is now trying to suppress its shareholders as well.”
Zumretay Arkin, World Uyghur Congress said: “Apple’s human rights record is utterly shameful. Apple was left isolated when other tech companies spoke against the draconian Hong Kong Security Law, its transparency report is positively opaque in comparison to Google’s, and only last month Apple was caught lobbying to undermine a bill designed to stop forced Uyghur labour in East Turkistan, despite adopting its first human rights policy. Apple is making promises it cannot keep.”
Sarah Couturier-Tanoh, Shareholder Association for Research and Education said: “On behalf of the long-term Apple shareholders we represent, we had hoped to see the company take stronger action in implementing its human rights policy. There are a number of steps Apple can take while still upholding local laws, including being much more transparent about the requests it gets from governments and the actions it is taking to push back on those. When a company has amassed the power Apple has, the expectations are increased accordingly.”
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Notes to editors
- Over 135,000 people have signed SumOfUs’s petition calling for Apple to stop blocking virtual private Networks (VPNs) in China’s App Store and uphold freedom of expression.
- At Apple’s February 2020 shareholder meeting, over 40% of investors voted for a proposal put forward by SumOfUs members. The resolution would have required the company to be more transparent in how it responds to requests from China to restrict certain apps, as well as report on whether or not the company had a policy on freedom of expression and access to information and the mechanisms for implementing its commitments if so. Apple’s lawyers filed a motion with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to dismiss the proposal, but were unsuccessful.
- Following the shareholder vote in February, Apple quietly published its first ever human rights policy in the company’s shareholder portal in August, just days before the deadline for filing shareholder motions for the 2021 shareholder meeting. The policy says that where national law and international human rights standards differ, it will follow the higher standard, as laid out in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
- In response, SumOfUs members filed a new proposal for the 2021 meeting, alongside investors and other organizations, including SHARE Canada. The new proposal would have required Apple to report annually to shareholders on how it is implementing its human rights policy, and on the actions it has taken in response to government demands that could limit free expression or access to information. Apple’s lawyers also filed a motion with the SEC to dismiss this proposal, which this time was upheld.
Examples of Apple’s poor record on human rights and freedom of expression
- In recent years, Apple has deleted over 1,000 Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) from its China App Store at the request of the Chinese Communist Party, making it more and more difficult for Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hong Kongers, and other human rights defenders using Apple products to protect themselves from government surveillance and repression.
- In response to the new Hong Kong Security Law, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft, Zoom, Telegram and TikTok said they will temporarily no longer comply with city authorities’ data requests, or are withdrawing from the city as a result of the repressive new law. Apple, however, has only said it would ‘assess’ the new law.
- Apple deleted HKmap.live from its App Store, an app marking the locations of police and road closures that helped pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong to stay safe from police brutality. Following this, US politicians – including Republicans Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – wrote to Apple CEO Tim Cook to express their “strong concern over Apple’s censorship on apps […] at the behest of the Chinese government.”
- Apple is repressing freedom of expression in Hong Kong by banning Apple Store employees from publicly supporting the pro-democracy movement and censoring individuals wanting to engrave pro-freedom and pro-democracy slogans for their products.
- Unlike Android, Apple has a closed ecosystem for apps, meaning that iOS users can’t load apps onto an iPhone or iPad unless they get them from the official App Store. When Apple deletes an app from its app store, it leaves its customers with no other way to access it without “jailbreaking” (modifying) their devices, thereby giving up certain security and privacy features that may be built in.
- Apple’s Transparency Report (including for mainland China) consists only of numbers of requests received and actions taken, by country. The report fails to give the same level of detail or explanation as its competitors such as Google. Page 1 of the China section of Google’s Transparency Report lists requests and outcomes like this: “Request: We received 146 requests from the Ministry of Public Security of China to remove 1471 YouTube URLs allegedly featuring content related to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The majority of the URLs were documentary or news footage from the media. Outcome: We removed 38 URLs for violating YouTube’s community guidelines. We age-restricted 200 URLs for containing graphic or violent content. We did not remove the remaining 1233 URLs.”