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Apple's silence in China sets a dangerous precedent

After taking public stand for user privacy in US, Apple is silent in China as it pulls down VPN apps

Farhad Manjoo | NYT 

Photo: Reuters

A year ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation made an extraordinary demand of To get inside a dead terrorist’s iPhone, law enforcement officials wanted the company to create a hackable version of the software that runs all iPhones.

To many legal experts, it wasn’t obvious that had a winning case against the request. But facing great legal and political opposition, took a stand anyway. Timothy D Cook, Apple’s chief executive, argued that the company had a financial and moral duty to protect its users’ privacy and security. He made clear that would obey American law — but only after trying to shape the law.

The fight paid off. On the eve of a courtroom showdown, the F B I rescinded its request. It is worth underlining this point: When took a public stand for its users’ liberty and privacy, the American government blinked.

Yet in China over the weekend, when faced with a broad demand by the Chinese internet authority, it was that blinked.

pulled down several VPN apps — programs that allow iPhone users to bypass the Chinese government’s censorship apparatus — from its Chinese App Store. The developers behind the apps must register with the government under a cyber security law that went into effect in January. The law imposes criminal penalties on and other that host unregistered apps.

Whatever may have done in private to fight the Chinese internet law, the company has not offered a peep of criticism in public. Apple’s only public statement on the VPN ban said that the company had been “required to remove some VPN apps in China that do not meet the new regulations,” but noted that the “apps remain available in all other markets where they do business.” Despite the pulldown, says there are still hundreds of VPN apps available on its Chinese app store, some of which remain unregistered with the government.

Search Apple’s website for a letter from Mr. Cook issuing a public rebuke of China’s intrusion into his customers’ privacy and freedom of expression — you won’t find it. The company has not fully tested its political and economic leverage in China. It hasn’t tested the public’s immense love of its products. It hasn’t publicly threatened any long-term consequences — like looking to other parts of the world to manufacture its products.

The company’s silence may be tactical; the Chinese government, the conventional thinking goes, does not take well to public rebuke. Yet Apple’s quiet capitulation to tightening censorship in one of its largest markets is still a dangerous precedent.

“Apple’s response is tremendously disappointing,” said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights advocacy group. “I think it’s possible that is playing a bigger role behind the scenes here. But the problem with that is, from the outside it looks exactly like doing nothing.”

This isn’t just a blow for the liberties of Apple’s customers in China. Authoritarian governments have a tendency to copy what works. Russia just passed a law curbing VPNs. Early this year, pulled down The New York Times app in the Chinese App Store, and both and Google removed the LinkedIn app from their Russian app stores. In the United States, President Trump has called for greater legal measures against the press. And he took the F.B.I.’s side in that fight over iPhones. What happens in China doesn’t stay in China.

It may be naïve to expect to publicly take on the Chinese government. Sure, it may be the world’s most valuable company, with extensive investments and operations in China. But is also just a foreign company — it must obey local laws, and it must watch for its bottom line. The Chinese market accounts for a quarter of Apple’s sales, and many analysts see the region as a key growth area for the company. So what was supposed to do? Jeopardize its operations over a few apps?

What’s more, Apple’s silence isn’t unusual. While American tech frequently criticize decisions by American officials, they appear loath to do so in China. This weekend, Amazon also began banning VPN services from the Chinese version of its cloud-computing platform, called AWS. Facebook, has been exploring ways of getting into the Chinese government’s good graces. Google pulled many of its services out of the Chinese market in 2010, blaming censorship, but it has lately been mulling ways to get back.

There is also a moral defense of Apple’s decision to give in without a public fight: Despite the VPN ban, Chinese internet users might still be better off with in China than with it outside. Its app store still provides people access to millions of apps that they might not find elsewhere in China. And Apple’s own communications apps in China remain free of government censorship. For instance, Messages, Apple’s texting app, and FaceTime, its video and phone-calling app, are protected by end-to-end encryption, allowing Chinese users to communicate freely.

But that may be of limited utility.

“It will only get worse,” said Xiao Qiang, a Chinese human rights activist and an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Information. Mr. Xiao sees the latest crackdowns as the beginning of a new wave of internet censorship in China. And he doesn’t buy the argument that saying something publicly would have backfired for

“They should say something,” he said. “They are a U.S. company, after all. And they’re a global company, upholding standards of privacy and speech in many, many markets outside China. So if they have to do things differently in China, they should have some public explanation for why — because that attitude could matter globally, including in the U.S.”

©2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Tue, August 01 2017. 08:10 IST