Senator attacks Apple's 'unconscionable' Chinese policy, demands answers

Senator Hawley | Image Credit: Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

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Senator Josh Hawley has written an open letter to Apple's Tim Cook, and amongst other topics, is accusing the company of helping China suppress free speech.

Hawley has previously said that Cook, and Google's Sundar Pichai, be held personally accountable over privacy issues to do with coronavirus contact tracing. Now he says that Apple should cut its dependency on China, bring work back to the US — and also should not ban Twitter.

"[U]nder your leadership, Apple has time and again assisted the Chinese Communist Party in surveilling and suppressing the basic human rights of the Chinese people," he wrote. "At the same time, it appears that Apple might be importing this model of speech control to the United States: reports indicate that your company might deplatform Twitter from the App Store as a consequence of the free speech policies implemented by new ownership."

The Republican Missouri senator has presented Apple with a list of questions, and a deadline of December 6, 2022, to respond. The questions cover:

  • When will Apple condemn the treatment of workers in Zhengzhou?
  • Why has it not already condemned this treatment?
  • What are the "material risks" in Apple's continued dependency on China?
  • If China invaded Taiwan, what impact would this have on Apple?
  • Why did Apple limit AirDrop in China?

As far as Zhengzhou's factory goes, after the rioting started, Apple sent a team to assess the situation. It's not clear what else Hawley wants from Apple in this regard other than perhaps a more vociferous statement.

Apple has also been clear over the years about "material risks" in China, as detailed by SEC filings from the last decade.

It's not clear why Hawley believes that should Apple decide to remove Twitter from the app store for violating terms of service likely related to moderation, that would be "deplatforming." Effective good-faith moderation by all online services is required to qualify for Section 230 protections against user-generated content in the US. A lack of moderation in a hosted app is not a major legal liability for the hosting App Store in the US, but exposes Apple to giant liabilities internationally, given that Twitter is a global service.

Additionally, even if pulled from the App Store, the service would still be available to all previous app downloaders, and on Safari as well.

Senator Hawley also repeatedly asks how Apple communicates information about these issues to its stakeholders. Other than routine SEC filings where it does address these problems, it holds an annual shareholders' meeting,

He also wants Apple to detail its "plan to diversify its supply chain and production networks, including any plans to expand manufacturing of its products in the United States with American workers."

He further asks that the company "provide all communication between Apple and Chinese Communist Party officials concerning the AirDrop feature in the iOS 16.1.1 update."

AirDrop was limited in China for what Apple called testing, before the recent protests. Apple says that it is a world-wide change coming soon, to prevent a setting set by a user perhaps long ago, from allowing the unwilling receipt of nudes or other objectionable content while in public.

Apple has not yet responded publicly, nor are we expecting it to. It's not clear if Apple will respond to Hawley's letter at all.