App Reviewer Sues Apple After Firing

Update: As of November 17, 2021, Trieu Pham dropped this case. The original post follows.

In the lawsuit (PDF), Trieu Pham, the App Store reviewer, alleges he was harassed at work on the basis of race and national origin — he is of Vietnamese ancestry — and that he was fired for his 2018 support of an app created by a Chinese dissident that claimed to showed corruption within the Chinese government.

Michael Tsai has a good summary of the suit and some related links, including this excerpt from the suit:

After plaintiff Pham approved the Guo Media App, the Chinese government contacted defendant Apple and demanded that the Guo Media App be removed from defendant Apple’s App Store. Defendant Apple then performed an internal investigation and identified plaintiff Pham as the App Reviewer who approved the Guo Media App.

In or around late September 2018, shortly after defendant Apple provided plaintiff Pham with the DCP, plaintiff Pham was called to a meeting to discuss the Guo Media App with multiple defendant Apple supervisors and managers. At this meeting, defendant Apple supervisors stated that the Guo Media App is critical of the Chinese government and, therefore, should be removed from the App Store. Plaintiff Pham responded stating the Guo Media App publishes valid claims of corruption against the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party and, therefore, should not be taken down. Plaintiff Pham further told his supervisors that the Guo Media App does not contain violent content or incite violence; does not violate any of defendant Apple’s policies and procedures regarding Apps; and, therefore, it should remain on the App Store as a matter of free speech.

I think this is a more complicated story than how it is being covered. It sounds like another clear-cut case of Apple’s deference to Chinese government interests — and that may be true. The judge in this case has denied that Pham was subject to a harassing work environment, but is allowing him to make the case that he was fired as retaliation for his approval of this app.

However, the app in question is a complex story in its own right. Guo Media was formed by Guo Wengui, a billionaire who fled criminal charges in China in 2014 to hide in his massive Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park. It was aboard Guo’s yacht where Steve Bannon was arrested last year on fraud charges; Bannon worked with Guo to raise funds and launch Guo Media.

According to the New York Times, many of Guo’s corruption claims appear valid or plausible; many appear to be fictional. Guo’s media company was responsible for the fictional story that the pandemic originated in a Wuhan bioweapons lab, and has a history of spreading disinformation. The G News app remains available in the Canadian App Store as of publishing. So, Guo Media is a shady company with potentially criminal founders, and G News publishes a lot of nonsense. But, according to Pham’s suit, three reviewers for the App Store in China approved it before Pham, and it was only then that Chinese government officials allegedly demanded its removal.

Apple’s dependency on its China-based manufacturing partners remains what I see as its biggest liability heading into 2021.1 Regardless of whether Pham’s claims turn out to be true, even the appearance of deference to a specific government’s censorship campaign is worrying. If government officials were so concerned about Guo Media, they could block it with the national firewall without involving Apple. But it appears that Apple is okay with being complicit. Apple has a China public relations problem because it has actual problems tied to its complex relationship with the country’s government.

  1. This is true to some extent for every participant in a worldwide economy that depends on manufacturing and supply chains in China. Apple’s situation is more complex and perhaps a greater liability because it has physical products and apps and media distributed under its name. ↥︎