Apple is once again coming under scrutiny and criticism in the United States for the way it conducts its business related to China.
For the second time in about a dozen days, Apple has made the HKmap Live app unavailable in its App Store, explaining the move this time by saying the app was putting at risk law enforcement and residents of Hong Kong.
When the app was made unavailable in the App Store the first time in early October, the explanation was that it hadn't been properly reviewed.
In a statement issued today, the US tech giant said that HKmap Live had been used to “target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement.”
Here's is an internal memo Apple CEO Tim Cook shared with employees today:
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.
Protesters in Hong Kong, however, are said to be using the map app, which utilizes reports disseminated on Telegram groups, precisely to avoid those areas designated by the police as unsafe during the current unrest in the territory.
In a statement HKmap Live said the following:
We disagree with Apple and Hong Kong Police's claim that HKmap App endangers law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong. There is 0 evidence to support CSTCB's accusation that HKmap App has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement. HKmap App never solicits, promotes, or encourages criminal activity. HKmap App consolidate information from user and public sources, e.g. live news stream, Facebook and Telegram.
When Apple initially pulled the app from the App Store, US Senator Josh Hawley linked to a story on Twitter, wondering, “Why is it these tech companies always favor the authoritarians at the end of the day?”
UPDATE: Apple now telling me they WILL make the app available. Say they “mistakenly” failed to go through full review process the first time
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) October 4, 2019
And although at the end of that day, it seemed like Apple had changed its mind, which Hawley tweeted about in an update – just over a week later, the app's gone missing again.
Today, Senator Hawley questioned Apple's loyalty and accused it of choosing “Chinese censors” over the US. “Who is really running Apple? Tim Cook or Beijing?” the Senator said in a tweet.
Apple assured me last week that their initial decision to ban this app was a mistake. Looks like the Chinese censors have had a word with them since. Who is really running Apple? Tim Cook or Beijing? https://t.co/szA71AWDTo
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) October 10, 2019
Hong Kong legislator Charles Mok pleaded with Tim Cook to change his mind:
Today I wrote to Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, to tell him his company’s decision to remove HKmap live app from Appstore will cause problems for normal Hong Kong’s citizens trying to avoid police presence while they are under constant fear ofpolice brutality. Values over profits, pls! pic.twitter.com/guaBfV8Pnf
— Charles Mok 莫乃光 (@charlesmok) October 10, 2019
“As a long-time user of Apple products and services, I highly appreciate that Apple has been championing freedom of expression as one of the corporation’s tenets. I sincerely hope Apple will choose to support its users and stop banning HKmap.live simply out of political reason or succumbing to China’s influence like other American companies appear to be doing.
We Hongkongers will definitely look closely at whether Apple chooses to uphold its commitment to free expression and other basic human rights, or become an accomplice for Chinese censorship and oppression.”
In the wake of the decision to reinstate HKMap Live, China's official media came down heavily on the company as supporting protesters, referred to as “rioters,” warning at the same time Apple's behavior would have its consequences.
Apple is now the only US giant to do a lot of business in mainland China, mostly because it's a hardware, instead of a services company, first. And China's a super lucrative market the giant is clearly not willing to jeopardize under pretty much any circumstances – even if it puts it at odds with lawmakers at home.
After all, you don't become one of the world's most valuable companies without thinking about money first. But Apple's current behavior is unsurprising – even though it might give pause to many in the US, and perhaps even mar that carefully cultivated image the company likes to project.