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Apple’s ideals face a very public test in Hong Kong app controversy

Tim Cook has come under fire in the Twittersphere for removing an app that supporters said helped people in Hong Kong avoid danger.

Apple’s ideals face a very public test in Hong Kong app controversy
[Photo: Visual China Group/Getty Images; Joanna Kosinska/Unsplash]

Apple is a profit-making company. It’s also progressive, idealistic, and outspoken. Rarely have those two identities come into conflict as they are now over the banning of a social app popular in the political flashpoint of Hong Kong.

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The app, called HKmap.live, uses crowdsourced information to map local happenings in Hong Kong. Since the demonstrations started, people in Hong Kong have been using the app to avoid places where demonstrators or police are gathering. Apple said it had received reports that people were using the HKmaps.live app to target police.

In a letter to employees today, Apple CEO Tim Cook defended the decision to remove HKmap.live. Here is the key sentence:

However, over the past several days we received credible information, from the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau, as well as from users in Hong Kong, that the app was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimize individuals and property where no police are present.

Cook’s note comes a day after Apple released a statement about HKmap.live, which stated with somewhat less detail that people were using the app to target police.

The whole affair has dredged up the whole “tech kowtows to China” debate. The debate has a new sheen to it in the context of Trump’s trade war. It also comes shortly after China’s all-but-official boycott of the NBA’s Houston Rockets after the team’s manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for the Hong Kong protestors October 4.

Perhaps the strongest voice in opposition to Cook’s reasoning comes from Hong Kong’s IT Legislator, Charles Mok, who posted an open letter to Cook on Twitter on Thursday. In his letter, Mok goes into detail about how the HKmap.live app has been keeping nonpolitical residents out of the crossfire between demonstrators and police.

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Apple blogger John Gruber of Daring Fireball, who has published a flurry of posts about the removal, ripped into the company’s removal of the app and explanation for that action. “I can’t recall an Apple memo or statement that crumbles so quickly under scrutiny,” he wrote on Friday. “For a company that usually measures umpteen times before cutting anything, it’s both sad and startling.”

It’s possible the Hong Kong police did tell Apple it was being harmed by the app in some way. But it may not have give Apple the real reason. The police may believe that the protestors may indeed have been using the app to gain some tactical advantage at street level.

Of course China is a huge market for tech companies, which have been criticized about talking big about freedom of expression and human rights, and then seemingly ignoring those ideals when it comes time to access the huge and lucrative Chinese market.

Google found itself at the business end of a firestorm of criticism when news leaked that it was working on a special, censored, search engine for the Chinese market. The company finally told Congress in July that the project, dubbed Project Dragonfly, had been terminated.

It may be Apple’s turn to face the music now. Cook himself has been outspoken about human rights and minority rights. These ideals are now being tested against the importance of Apple’s China business, and against Cook’s responsibility to shareholders. China is Apple’s third-largest market; it generated $52 billion in revenues during 2018, mainly from the iPhone.

If Apple reinstates HKmap.live to the App Store it could anger the Chinese government, and maybe even the country’s population, which seems capable of an organized revolt against western business entities–like the NBA, for example. That could be very bad for Apple. With that in mind, here is Cook’s full email to employees:

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You have likely seen the news that we made the decision to remove an app from the App Store entitled HKmap.live. These decisions are never easy, and it is harder still to discuss these topics during moments of furious public debate. It’s out of my great respect for the work you do every day that I want to share the way we went about making this decision.

It is no secret that technology can be used for good or for ill. This case is no different. The app in question allowed for the crowdsourced reporting and mapping of police checkpoints, protest hotspots, and other information. On its own, this information is benign. However, over the past several days we received credible information, from the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau, as well as from users in Hong Kong, that the app was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimize individuals and property where no police are present. This use put the app in violation of Hong Kong law. Similarly, widespread abuse clearly violates our App Store guidelines barring personal harm.

We built the App Store to be a safe and trusted place for every user. It’s a responsibility that we take very seriously, and it’s one that we aim to preserve. National and international debates will outlive us all, and, while important, they do not govern the facts. In this case, we thoroughly reviewed them, and we believe this decision best protects our users.

Tim

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