Apple chief executive Tim Cook on Wednesday sent a letter to his staff explaining why the iPhone maker had banned a "benign" app in Hong Kong that enables users to crowdsource real-time information on police whereabouts, locations of traffic obstructions and protesters.
"Technology can be used for good or for ill," Cook wrote, after HKMap.live was removed from its App Store. "The app was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimise individuals and property where no police are present."
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The incident was emblematic of the commercial bind Apple finds itself in the region: greater China — an area that includes mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan — accounts for a fifth of Apple revenues and 27 per cent of its profits. Critics accuse the company of self-censorship and sacrificing its values in the pursuit of profits.
The company and Cook have been at pains to convey that they had not kowtowed to Beijing, even though the decision was announced a day after Chinese state media criticised the company. On Tuesday the People's Daily, a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist party, accused Apple of abetting "rioters" when it approved the crowdsourced mapping app for download.
Apple said the move was about adhering to its own longstanding guidelines for building apps, which clearly state they "must comply with all legal requirements in any location" where they are available. The app was removed, the company added, because it violated Hong Kong's laws — not Beijing's.
But it is not clear that Hong Kong authorities asked Apple to remove the app. Rather, its statement implies the iPhone maker played judge and jury on its own — in what critics see as an act of self-censorship.
"I can't recall an Apple memo or statement that crumbles so quickly under scrutiny. For a company that usually measures umpteen times before cutting anything, it's both sad and startling," wrote John Gruber, one of the best-known Apple commentators, on his blog Daring Fireball.
It is a delicate balancing act for Apple, which has long trumpeted its liberal and progressive credentials. Its famous motto has encouraged consumers to "Think Different", raising the charge that it is applying double standards at home and abroad.
Cook is an outspoken advocate for a range of issues, including gay rights, privacy and the "moral obligation" to protect undocumented migrants to the US known as "Dreamers".
Nonetheless, his letter to staff failed to even mention the pro-democracy Hong Kong protests, the reason the app was created in the first place.
The episode has prompted critics to accuse the company of hypocrisy. A number say Apple's arguments were masking its real intentions — to quell anger from Beijing, which has been trying to shore up corporate support as is tries to repress pro-democracy protesters in the semi-autonomous region.
Tom Cotton, a US senator, said Apple's removal of the app proved the company was "yet another capitalist who'll sell rope to communists to hang us".
Charles Mok, a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong representing the technology sector, pleaded with Cook to "stand firm" and "uphold its commitment to free expression and other basic human rights, or become an accomplice for Chinese censorship and oppression".
The iPhone maker is not the first Silicon Valley company to confront the acute challenge of operating in mainland China. Facebook has been blocked since 2009 when some users ran foul of Beijing by supporting independence activists. In 2010, Google shut its search engine in China, in part so it would not have to abide by Beijing's laws.
Apple's traditional focus on hardware rather than data meant the company had been positioned differently to its Silicon Valley peers. The iPhone maker has pitched itself in the country as a high-end, aspirational brand offering smartphones, laptops and tablet devices for the country's growing middle class.
But as Apple's business evolves from selling hardware to increasingly focusing on services such as music, movies, news and other content for its streaming platforms, censorship issues in China will probably get stickier.
A preview of such problems emerged this week when Apple removed Quartz, the news site, from its App Store in mainland China, telling the company — which has been covering the protests in Hong Kong — that it publishes "content that is illegal in China".
Those sympathetic to Apple's stance point out that plenty of companies adhere to similar standards in the west.
"Apps that, for example, have live leaks of police radios don't have London police feeds because of local regulations," said David Schlesinger, founder of Tripod Advisors and former chairman of Thomson Reuters China.
"The China-Hong Kong issue is particularly sensitive but adherence to local regulations is something that all global companies struggle with. China is just particularly sharp and sensitive."
Still, some say Apple's decision over the app looks like a rare mis-step for a company that has otherwise adroitly navigated the US-China trade war in the past year.
"Apple assured me last week that their initial decision to ban this app was a mistake," tweeted Josh Hawley, a US senator from Missouri. "Looks like the Chinese censors have had a word with them since. Who is really running Apple? Tim Cook or Beijing?"
Written by: Patrick McGee
© Financial Times