UN demands Apple answers over VPN app removal in China

The United Nations has taken the almost unprecedented step of writing to Apple to demand answers over their decision to withdraw VPNs from their online store in China.

As we reported a couple of weeks ago, Apple took the decision last month to pull more than sixty VPN apps from their Chinese App store.  Despite their efforts to position themselves as bastions free speech, Apple CEO Tim Cook took the low road when challenged about this decision, arguing that they had to comply with Chinese domestic laws.

But it seems this argument hasn’t won over the United Nations which is why their special rapporteur on opinion and expression, David Kaye has written directly to Tim Cook asked for information about why Apple has taken the decision it has.

A strongly worded letter

Kaye is understanding of the difficult position that Apple is in. In his letter, he notes that “Chinese restrictions put you in the position – unenvious, and likely reluctantly – of having to mediate between your customers, Chinese citizens, and Chinese law.”

However, he also goes on to highlight what might be perceived as hypocrisy on the part of Tim Cook and Apple, by quoting Cook’s statement when he received the Newseum 2017 Free Expression Award back in April. At that event, Cook said “we work to defend these freedoms by enabling people around the world to speak up. And… we do it by speaking up ourselves. Because companies can and should have values.”

But he then goes on to highlight that “In recent years, China has expanded the scope of its censorship tools and efforts, coming at the expense of individual rights to freedom of expression, access to information, freedom of association, and other fundamental human rights.”

He then goes on to pose a series of eight questions which he asks Cook to provide him with further information about. These include whether Apple received a formal or informal demand from the Chinese regime for the removal of the apps, what legal analysis they took before reaching their decision, and if they challenged it in any way.

Did Apple take their international obligations into account?

Pointedly, he also asked if Apple took into account China’s obligations under international human rights law and whether they took into account international instruments such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights or the Global Network Initiative’s Principles on Freedom of Expression.

While Haye is at pains in his letter to stress that he is not seeking to pass judgement on Apple’s decision to pull the VPN apps from their Chinese app store, but rather understand it, the tone of the rest of letter suggests that he is far from impressed.

There has been no public comment or response from Apple to the letter yet, but Haye does not at the end of his letter that he does plan to make their reply to him public. This will no doubt make for interesting reading as and when it does appear although the likelihood is that any particularly sensitive content will either be redacted or not included in the first place.

Great transparency over corporate censorship collusion

Whilst it is shame that the United Nations does not have the power to sanction or even condemn companies like Apple when they make corporate decisions that go against the spirit, if not the letter, of international human rights law, it is still encouraging that they are willing to seek greater transparency on how these decisions are reached.

But whilst the response from Apple will provide a valuable insight for privacy advocates and other tech companies operating, or planning to operate, in Communist China, it will do little to help the millions of Chinese citizens, who look set to lose access to one of the few tools that actually allowed them to access an unsurveiled and uncensored internet.

Apple is likely to get through this controversy, but it will leave a black mark on their copybook with many who had bought into the notion that Apple really did care about the freedom of expression of their users. But maybe, just maybe, the intervention of the UN Special rapporteur, might just nudge them back in the right direction.

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