In late November, protests erupted in a factory manufacturing Apple products in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou amid workers’ discontent about pay. Footage and images from the site showed police beating protesters and arresting them.
The turmoil in Zhengzhou was the latest in a series of challenges that have delayed the manufacturing of Apple products in China and led to the company accelerating its plans to move its production elsewhere.
Other tech giants are seeking to do the same, concerned about tensions between the US and China and COVID-19-related shutdowns imposed by the Chinese authorities.
As these companies start to relocate their operations, they have the chance to account for their human rights record in the communist country. For years, they have bowed to state policies that restrict the fundamental freedoms of Chinese citizens.
These companies have to review their human rights records in authoritarian states and commit not to make the same mistakes in the countries where they will relocate their production or grow their markets. It is time for tech companies to undertake a human rights reset.
Compliance with censorship
Apple, the world’s richest company, has made a significant profit in China, which has also left it vulnerable to pressure from the local authorities to act against its stated human rights commitments. While the size of its production has been politically and economically important to the Chinese government, which in theory would have given the company leverage to oppose such rights abuses, Apple has been seemingly unwilling to push back in meaningful ways.
The company has complied with repressive legislation, such as the Cybersecurity Law and others, which require tech companies, among others, to monitor and report politically sensitive content, store Chinese users’ data in China and provide the authorities with access to it.
Apple has also engaged in censorship, deleting tens of thousands of apps from its Chinese App Store, including encryption and circumvention tools, such as VPNs needed to hop over the Great Firewall of China.
Most recently, in November, Apple limited the parameters for wireless filesharing on its app AirDrop after its use by anti-government protesters in China. The changes allow the option “share with everyone” to be active for just 10 minutes before it switches back to “contacts only”, effectively eliminating its utility during protests.
Apple is not alone. Microsoft, another US-based tech giant, has also been compliant with the repressive policies of the Chinese government.
Following the implementation of the Cybersecurity Law, the company partnered with the state-owned China Electronics Technology Group to develop a version of its Windows operating system specifically for Chinese government users. This has raised concerns about the company giving backdoor access to its software to the Chinese government.
Microsoft is also a member of the Internet Society of China and as such has made a pledge to block websites that offend the Chinese censors.
After most services offered by Google were blocked in China in 2010, Microsoft’s Bing has been the only major foreign search engine that works without a VPN. Surely, compliance with Beijing’s censorship demands helps keep it that way.
Similarly, LinkedIn, which Microsoft acquired in 2016, was the only big foreign social networking site available in China, after Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were blocked in 2009. In late 2021, LinkedIn had over 57 million users, making China its third largest market after the United States and India. In exchange for access to this sizeable userbase, LinkedIn too was expected to play the censorship game.
The platform geoblocked content belonging to high-profile human rights defenders, such as Zhou Fengsuo, journalists like Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, and corporate investigator Peter Humphrey, along with the posts of millions of Chinese users deemed “sensitive”.
Despite its record of compliance, in March 2021 the Cyberspace Administration of China rebuked LinkedIn for not censoring enough. Finally, in October 2021, Microsoft announced it was shutting down LinkedIn services in China due to a “significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements”.
Clearly, the cost of tech companies doing business in China’s enormous market, whether producing or selling products and services, has long been to abandon their responsibilities to respect human rights. But it shouldn’t be this way.
A human rights reset
As big tech companies prepare to reduce their reliance on production in China, they have an opportunity to set new standards for human rights.
Apple is looking to shift its supply chain to India and Vietnam. But both of these countries are known to engage in severe censorship as well.
India leads the world in internet shutdowns, responsible for 106 of 182 shutdowns documented last year by the #KeepItOn Coalition. In recent years, the Indian authorities have enacted legislation that pressures tech companies to over-censor and retain user data to hand over to the government. It now looks to threaten end-to-end encryption.
India has ordered platforms to take down content it didn’t want and warned of severe penalties for noncompliance, including threatening Twitter staff with up to seven years imprisonment. Earlier this year, Twitter sued the government for such “overbroad and arbitrary” regulations.
It is also concerning that Apple is expanding into Vietnam, which ranks among the five worst internet freedom abusers in the world, according to US-based pro-democracy organisation Freedom House.
Like China, Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law requires tech companies to comply with data localisation, actively censor content, and make user data available to the authorities. In November, its government announced plans for new rules that would require platforms to remove offending content within 24 hours.
Vietnam has also shown that it will hold tech companies financially hostage until they comply with its digital diktats. In 2020, following months of government-backed bandwidth throttling to drastically slow down its services, Facebook, which makes about $1bn a year in the country, agreed to increase censorship of “anti-state” content on its platform.
With such repressive policies in place in both India and Vietnam, Apple faces the risk of repeating the same mistakes it made in China unless it changes its approach to dealing with government pressure.
The company and other tech giants doing business with repressive states should heed their responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) to address any adverse human rights impacts their activities may have, including on the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and access to information online.
They should resist government orders to arbitrarily restrict freedom of expression and implement labour protections in their supply chains.
They should be fully transparent about how they negotiate market access and licensing agreements with governments and make such documents publicly available to empower independent oversight.
Companies should have a robust policy on how they will adhere to their human rights responsibilities in the face of government pressure and hold open consultations with civil society to establish clear benchmarks and red lines.
Companies must commit to independent human rights impact assessments, which should be revised as conditions change, and be publicly available.
Shareholder groups in these companies should also impress upon corporate leadership the importance of compliance with their human rights responsibilities.
Tech companies can and should do business without hurting human rights. Having a positive human rights record could be just as profitable as bowing down to repressive state policies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.