FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 4 September 2020
CONTACTS: Pema Doma | Students for a Free Tibet | pemadoma@
Lobsang Gyatso | Tibet Action Institute | email@example.com | +91-9882407365
Mandie McKeown | International Tibet Network | firstname.lastname@example.org | +44 7748158618
For the first time, Apple has issued a new human rights policy  that includes the company’s commitment to freedom of information and expression as human rights. The policy comes after Tibet, Uyghur, Hong Konger, Chinese democracy, and ethical consumer activist groups campaigned  about the company’s role in enabling cyber-surveillance and censorship . The landmark decision to approve the policy was taken by Apple’s Board of Directors and published ahead of the deadline to submit shareholder motions for next year’s shareholder meeting.
In February 2020, at Apple’s last shareholder meeting, over 40% of the company’s investors voted to support a resolution  put forward by ethical consumer group SumOfUs . The resolution proposed that Apple report annually on its policies on freedom of expression and access to information, as well as be more transparent in how it responds to requests from governments such as China to restrict certain apps.
Apple has deleted thousands of apps including virtual private networks and recently PopVote , a voting platform used by pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong to hold unofficial primary elections. By contrast, the app was quickly accepted by the Google Play store.
The new human rights policy meets the first part of the resolution by publicly committing to respect freedom of information and expression as human rights, and is welcomed by activists. At the same time, the policy does not go far enough in outlining the implementation of the company’s commitment. Later this month SumOfUs, with the support of Tibet Groups, will be filing a new proposal for the 2021 shareholder meeting, which would ensure Apple further develops processes and transparency around implementation and oversight of the company’s commitment to freedom of expression and access to information.
Pema Doma, Campaigns Director at Students for a Free Tibet, said: “As a Tibetan-American, I am eager to continue engaging Apple to bring voices from impacted communities into the company’s decisions surrounding human rights. By bringing Tibetan, Uyghur, Hong Konger, Chinese, and other frontline iOS users to the table, Apple is setting a crucial example that can have a positive impact on global norms around freedom of expression for generations to come. This is just the first step, so I hope to see Apple continue in this direction.”
Lobsang Gyatso Sither, Director of Digital Security at Tibet Action Institute, said: “Apple implementing a Human Rights Policy is an important milestone in the right direction. Apple continues to operate in numerous countries where human rights violations occur on a daily basis and how this policy will be put into practice is the crucial part of this process. As an organization working for the digital security of Tibetans inside Tibet, we will continue to monitor this policy and Apple’s continued practices in Tibet and its impact on Tibetans on the ground.”
Mandie McKeown at International Tibet Network said: “This is a breakthrough moment – Tibet groups have worked tirelessly with our activist partners on this campaign and we are buoyed that Apple have taken this first step towards upholding the rights of Tibetans in Tibet. But this is just a first step and Apple now has to implement this policy in full and we will be watching closely to ensure that it does just that.”
Zumretay Arkin of World Uyghur Congress, said: “The new human rights policy adopted by Apple is a great step towards change, and accountability. As a Uyghur-Canadian, I am glad to see that the world’s largest company has decided to stand up for human rights. It is vital however that Apple continues to engage and listen to the affected communities, and Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hong Kongers will in a joint effort make sure that Apple keeps its promise. We ask Apple to stand up to Beijing, rather than complying with its censorship policies. We ask Apple to take into account its consumers’ voices.”
Sondhya Gupta, Campaigns Manager at SumOfUs, said: “Apple’s adoption of a human rights policy is a breakthrough moment and we commend Apple for taking this first step. However, we still have questions about how the policy will be implemented and what oversight there will be. Apple has a huge influence on people’s freedom of expression globally, and ultimately, the company’s commitment to human rights will be measured by the difference it makes to the lives of millions of Apple customers living under cyber-surveillance in Hong Kong, Tibet, East Turkestan, China, and elsewhere. We will continue to work alongside shareholders and human rights defenders in dialogue with Apple to ensure the company lives up to this responsibility.”
A joint campaign calling for Apple to stop blocking virtual private networks (VPNs) in China’s App Store and uphold freedom of expression was launched in October 2019 by Tibetan, Uyghur and Hong Kong activists, Chinese human rights defenders and ethical consumer group SumOfUs. See https://StopAppleCensorship.
Examples of Apple’s poor record on human rights and freedom of expression include:
Apple has deleted over 1,000 Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) from its China App Store at the request of the Chinese Communist Party in recent years, leaving Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hong Kongers and other human rights defenders unable to install audited privacy apps 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 and has made no statement in support of freedom of expression.
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.”
Unlike Android, Apple has a closed ecosystem for apps, meaning that Apple 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.
SumOfUs’s shareholder proposal in February was backed by shareholder advisory groups ISS and Glass Lewis. It called for Apple to: publicly commit to respect freedom of expression as a human right; create oversight mechanisms for its human rights policies; and publish the actions Apple has taken in response to government demands that could limit free expression or access to information.