Apple is selling out. It’s not about the latest version of the iPhone, but the huge cache of personal data that will be going directly to the largest, and one of the harshest, authoritarian regimes in the world: the Communist government of China.
Given the Chinese government’s continuing crackdown on human rights and freedom of speech under President Xi Jinping, as well as its deepening reach into Western democracies, Apple’s policies in China have far-reaching implications for us all.
Last summer, Apple announced that it would be partnering with Guizhou-Cloud Big Data, a state-owned company with Communist Party connections, to build Apple’s first data-storage center in China. Beginning Feb. 28, the iCloud content of Apple ID users registered in China will be sent to and managed by Guizhou-Cloud Big Data.
Customers registered in China, according to Apple’s new terms and conditions agreement for the country, must “understand and agree that Apple and G.C.B.D. will have access to all data that you store on this service, including the right to share, exchange and disclose all user data, including content, to and between each other under applicable law.”
In short, all personal user information stored on the iCloud — including photos, videos, text files, contacts, calendars and iCloud email — will be shared with Guizhou-Cloud Big Data and could be available to the Chinese authorities as well. Apple has said that G.C.B.D. will not have access to the personal data stored in its facility without Apple’s permission, but the new terms and conditions agreement appears to say the opposite.
Under the agreement, Apple seems to be absolving itself of responsibility for what the authorities may choose to do with personal data in G.C.B.D.’s hands. Users who refuse Apple’s terms will be denied iCloud services. Users who accept run the risk of unwittingly provoking the ire of the aggressive police state, resulting in deleted data or accounts, or harassment and imprisonment.
This kind of partnership between an American company and a dictatorial regime is at odds with the image Apple has built as a company committed to privacy and a willingness to stand up to pressure from larger entities like the United States government. In a 2015 interview with NPR, the Apple chief executive Tim Cook emphasized that privacy “is a fundamental human right that people have,” from a “values point of view,” not “a commercial interest point of view.”
Unfortunately, it now seems that such “values” are taking a back seat to profits.
In 2017, Apple also announced it was halting the sale of virtual private networks, apps that allow users inside China to get access to blocked content that is critical for activists and regular citizens. IPhones in China also no longer include some Western news outlets like The New York Times on the News app.
In response to criticism about these steps, Apple has blithely responded that it is obeying China’s laws. Is this how American companies should respond to dictatorial demands and arbitrary, unjust legal codes?
The Chinese regime makes no apologies about its human rights violations and seems not to care whom it crushes in its quest for power and control, whether it is the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died last year in Chinese custody, or the many human-rights lawyers and activists who have been detained and tortured in recent years.
When dealing with the Chinese regime, American companies should likewise not apologize for their commitment to the fundamental values — human rights, democracy, freedom of information, the rule of law — that have allowed them to flourish. American companies should not follow practices in authoritarian countries that are illegal in the United States.
It’s hard to believe that Apple is caving in to the regime like this. The only conclusion I am left to draw is that the company is O.K. with taking part in the suppression of freedoms abroad while espousing high-minded values at home.
To be fair, many American tech companies have been tripping over themselves to get into China. Facebook has reportedly been developing censorship software so that it can win approval to operate in China, while the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has long been courting the Chinese leadership. For such companies, the Chinese market is simply too big of a temptation when weighed against less quantitatively measurable things like human rights and freedom of expression.
Those companies, institutions and organizations that play an outsize role in society should not shirk their responsibility to uphold social justice. The Chinese people have been fighting for human rights for decades, including the rights to privacy, freedom of speech and democracy. Many have lost their lives doing so. Instead of aiding dictatorships and following a misguided path to the future, Apple should return to its core values and protect the rights of its users at home and abroad.
Chen Guangcheng, a civil-rights activist, is the author of The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China.