Apple Publishes Document Outlining Its ‘Commitment to Human Rights’ After Criticism of Actions in China

Patrick McGee, Financial Times:

Apple has for the first time published a human rights policy that commits to respecting “freedom of information and expression”, following years of criticism that it bows to demands from Beijing and carries out censorship in mainland China, Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.


But it does not mention any particular country, nor does it refer to high-profile dilemmas like what to do when China, the world’s largest smartphone market, asks it to ban apps that help users evade censorship and surveillance.

The Apple policy merely states: “Where national law and international human rights standards differ, we follow the higher standard. Where they are in conflict, we respect national law while seeking to respect the principles of internationally recognised human rights.” 

Apple’s policy (PDF) is short — just four pages — and easily readable. Here’s the salient paragraph on handling conflicts between human rights and local laws that infringe upon them:

We work every day to make quality products, including content and services, available to our users in a way that respects their human rights. We’re required to comply with local laws, and at times there are complex issues about which we may disagree with governments and other stakeholders on the right path forward. With dialogue, and a belief in the power of engagement, we try to find the solution that best serves our users — their privacy, their ability to express themselves, and their access to reliable information and helpful technology.

A report last month by Wayne Ma for the Information explored a number of ways Apple has managed to work around the legal requirements imposed by, in particular, the Chinese government. The App Store has generally been allowed more leash and less scrutiny than other app marketplaces; iMessage and FaceTime are allowed to operate encrypted and without government interference; Apple has not made its source code available to authorities. Ma also noted a number of instances where Apple has responded to Chinese government enforcement by disabling a feature or shutting down a store rather than complying.

However, the best summary of that report is not so much that Apple is carefully negotiating its position in China as it is that these are exemptions that the government is eager to crack down on. That is certainly made much easier thanks to Apple’s centralized approach. At the same time, that approach potentially gives it increased leverage against measures with which it disagrees.