Some of Apple’s controversial initiatives have been at odds with anti-government protesters in Hong Kong for quite some time. In October 2019, the tech giant flushed the real-time protest map service out of its App Store. On the other hand, the silver lining is that the iPhone’s AirDrop feature has helped the pro-democratic activists exchange messages in crowded places.
Whereas the strained relationship has seen both ups and downs, the latest move by the Cupertino-based tech giant demonstrates its inclination toward the position of Hong Kong authorities rather than the opposite side of this long-running confrontation. The activists are now afraid that Apple is, once again, ramping up its efforts to play an obstructive role in the protest movement.
On 11 and 12 July, at least 600,000 people voted in the 2020 Hong Kong pro-democracy primaries. The city’s authorities have since condemned this unofficial election and issued statements emphasizing the illegal essence of the undertaking.
One of the factors that motivated the opposition to engage in this exercise was to express utter disagreement with the draconian Hong Kong national security law foisted by China’s central government in June. For the record, the legitimate election in the city is scheduled to take place in September.
To conduct the recent primaries, the organizers leveraged a civil referendum system called PopVote. It could be used via a corresponding Android or iOS app. Google Play store verified and approved the Android app without further ado, but things did not go nearly as smoothly for the iOS counterpart. First, it was rejected by Apple’s App Store due to some bugs in the code that could supposedly make the app vulnerable to takeover and fuel adware attacks.
The developers promptly made the required tweaks and resubmitted the app to no avail. Apple never allowed it to end up in its marketplace. Edwin Chu, an IT consultant for the PopVote platform, said in a commentary that Apple was censoring the initiative. The company has not responded ever since.
Apple has been walking a fine line between its well-known dedication to human rights and pacifying Beijing officials in the context of their anti-democratic policies. This is unsurprising, given that the company heavily relies on the country, which is both a huge market and a manufacturer of its products.
This statement is not far-fetched: Apple regularly pulls the plug on software on its Chinese app marketplace to comply with the requests of Beijing. For instance, it purged a handful of popular VPN services in 2017. Last year, it prevented the residents of Hong Kong and Macau from using Taiwan’s flag emoji via its iOS emoji keyboard.
The political situation in the city escalated further in July 2020. The local government gave law enforcement agencies the green light to tamper with the activities of Internet service providers (ISPs) and other digital platforms. Effectively, the new national security law allows the police to obtain any content, including sensitive user information, from these entities.
In response to this move, tech heavyweights such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter stated that they would temporarily discontinue reviewing data requests from the authorities of Hong Kong. Apple hasn’t issued any such statements regarding this matter, though – it is reportedly “assessing” the impact of the new law.
The above-mentioned companies that took the route of respecting users’ privacy have one thing in common. Unlike Apple, the trio is banned in China. Ultimately, the response boils down to the scope of economic leverage the government has over a business. The stakes are really high for Apple in China, which could explain its footwork.
Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, has been building a good deal of the company’s business strategy around a partnership with China since he became the executive vice president for worldwide sales and operations. Most of Apple’s manufacturing power is currently concentrated in China.
Statistics revealed last year show that the bulk of its contractors supplying device components, including glass and chips, are based there. Furthermore, Cook was appointed the top advisor to the business school at Tsinghua University, one of the country’s leading educational institutions. Despite Apple’s occasionally submissive position regarding the privacy-infringing requests of Beijing, its executives have emphasized that the people of China benefit from its tangible presence in the country.
The tactic adopted by Apple pertaining to the new legislation could pave the way for other tech enterprises operating in Hong Kong. Not only does the city’s Internet posture growingly depend on the way foreign countries respond to Beijing’s contentious steps in this area, but it’s also a matter of how the big names in the tech industry choose to act under the dynamically changing circumstances.
Moreover, China might try to extrapolate the Hong Kong experience to the global online landscape down the road. In other words, the ongoing transformations in the city could become a test run preceding a large-scale worldwide “export” of Chinese Internet standards.
As the central government keeps making bold moves to hold sway over Hong Kong, this state of things calls forth a tough dilemma for tech companies that operate there. It will be increasingly problematic for them to combine their activities with the principles of net neutrality and personal data intactness.
These businesses might soon have to make a hard choice: succumb to the government’s requests to filter online content and provide user data or say “No” and be faced with fines or jail sentences for personnel. Well, there will be one more option: to call it quits and thereby let Chinese services take over these niches. One way or another, the firms will have to figure out what is the lesser of two evils for them.
At the end of the day, it appears that the future of Hong Kong’s Internet freedom largely hinges on the ambitions of big players in the tech domain. One of the scenarios is that these companies could cause the protests to come to a halt, although their innovative services have significantly facilitated the democratic movement in that region. It comes as no surprise that some privacy advocates think of major tech firms as state-like actors, especially in the paradigm of regimes like China.
With roughly 7.5 million people living in Hong Kong, the city is hard to call a game-changing market for IT services. It makes a difference in another way, though. For more than a year of protests, its residents have showcased an unwavering mindset in terms of privacy, freedom of expression, and the fundamentals of an open Internet.
That being said, decision-makers in large tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook might be reluctant to give in to the pressure of Hong Kong authorities and let the situation go with the flow. Besides business interests, this is a matter of ethics, values, and reputation.
In the meanwhile, the pro-democratic forces are starting to capitalize on secure messaging solutions such as Telegram and Signal. They have also added the ProtonMail end-to-end encrypted email service to their toolkit. The logic behind these choices is crystal clear: none of these providers has offices in Hong Kong, and therefore they are not obliged to hand over user data to the local government.
On a side note, ProtonMail was reportedly planning to open an office in Hong Kong last year. Instead, its executives decided in favor of Taiwan because they were worried about the tightening censorship and other restrictions imposed by Chinese authorities. Telegram has been blocked in China since 2015 and can only be used via a VPN connection there. The provider chose not to negotiate with Beijing’s regulatory agencies for resuming its operation there.