Apple, Now the World’s Biggest Company, Has an Abysmal Human Rights Record

china human rights apple

Apple’s enormous profits and dominance can’t erase its support for authoritarian regimes, stifling of free speech, and exploitation of forced labor.

By Captain Semantics

As of Friday’s market close, Apple has surpassed Saudi Aramco as the world’s most valuable publicly traded company. “Despite COVID-19 headwinds, Apple grew revenue in every segment and geography, beating consensus revenue by 14% as ecosystem engagement rises,” Morgan Stanley analysts reported in a research note Friday. Not unlike the previous Saudi holders of the ‘world’s most valuable company title’, Apple has been accused of stifling competition and putting profits above human rights. 

This sentiment is not lost on its competitors in technology. ProtonMail, in a scathing public rebuke, published details of what it describes as Apple’s willingness to cozy up to authoritarian governments and unethically hamstring its competitors. “Apple has increasingly aligned itself with oppressive governments and curtailed digital freedom. There was a time when Apple portrayed itself as a rebellious alternative to giants like Microsoft. Today, Apple has become a monopoly, crushing potential competitors with exploitative fees and conducting censorship on behalf of dictators.”

The letter goes on to explain how companies like ProtonMail have had to endure Apple boxing them in out of fear of reprisals. “ We have long hesitated to speak out for fear that these tech giants may abuse their market dominance to destroy all who dare to stand up against them,” the letter said. 

ProtonMail are not the only ones with grievances against Apple. In February, a group of stockholders attempted to force the company’s hand to make transparent its dealings with the Chinese government. According to The Telegraph, “ More than four in ten – 40.6pc – of Apple’s shareholder base voted in favour of a proposal asking it to disclose how it responds to government requests that could limit free expression, based on preliminary results from its annual meeting on Wednesday.” Social-justice minded investor group SumOfUs spearheaded this measure along with a surprisingly large contingent of rebellious stockholders. 

The proposed measure accused Apple of “aiding the repression of Uighurs, Tibetans and other rights activists.”

“While it is improper (and illegal) to leverage market dominance for anti-competitive purposes, leveraging this power to suppress digital freedom is simply unethical, and it is long overdue that somebody called out Apple for this behavior. As first-hand witnesses to this behavior, we can share our story. “

Apple not only has the leverage to do as it pleases but the cash reserves surpassing many nation-states. Last year, Apple reported record profits of $55 billion. Apple’s controls a whopping 25% of the global smartphone market. According to ProtonMail, “This means that for over a billion people (particularly in the US where their market share approaches 50%), the only way to install apps is through the App Store. This gives Apple enormous influence over the way software is created and consumed around the world.”

This market dominance has given Apple the ability to control the flow of information, box out potential competitors, and levy exorbitant ‘taxes’ against other market contenders. 

Yet all of that cash, influence, and dominance has not precluded the tech behemoth from acquiescing to authoritarian regimes and limiting free-speech when called upon by tyrants. In order for Apple to do lucrative business in countries with repressive regimes, they must be largely subordinate. Profit is often paramount to human rights. Working in a landscape where it has the power to further the value of free speech, Apple often chooses the opposite direction. They have even demanded applications within their App Stores remove language about free speech. After ProtonVPN included language in their most recent update celebrating free speech, “They demanded that we remove this language around anti-censorship on the grounds that freedom of speech is severely limited in some countries. The options are comply or be removed from the App Store. What is most troubling is that Apple requested the removal of the language around censorship in ALL countries where our app is available, in effect doing the bidding of authoritarian governments even in countries where freedom of speech is protected. It is true that in countries around the world, such as China, South Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, freedom of speech is indeed severely limited, and thousands of activists have been killed or imprisoned for expressing themselves. However, by conceding to tyrants and enforcing the lowest common denominator, Apple is ignoring internationally recognized human rights and forfeiting progress we all enjoy and which activists have paid for with their lives.”

Privacy is also a critical issue where Apple is failing to carry the torch of human rights. Chinese law compels Apple to share user’s data against their will and Apple willingly complies. Even Google has gone further to resist such Chinese pressure.

The ProtonMail letter goes on to accuse Apple of actively helping China suppress protests in Hong Kong and elsewhere.” In China, Apple has censored news platforms such as The New York Times and Bloomberg News, while in Hong Kong it blocked the access to the HKMaps app that supported the local democracy protests. It has also agreed to delete dozens of apps, including podcasts, that China says violate local censorship laws.” 

Manufacturing is a key area in which Apple has had a less than exemplary record. Though we know very little about conditions within the multitude of Apple facilities inside of China and elsewhere, what we do know is startling. As Newsweek has reported, Apple said in 2016 that 20% of its cobalt supply came “from sources that don’t currently have responsible sourcing programs in place to meet our rigorous requirements.” In 2014, a BBC expose revealed factory staff in China were exposed to hazardous and poor working conditions. Later, it was reported that a dozen employees committed suicide at Apple supplier Foxconn. Foxconn has since installed nets around its buildings to prevent factory line workers from committing suicide.

Chinese workers in the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen where a dozen laborers committed suicide.

 According to their own internal audits, the Supplier Responsibility Progress Report, several “core violations” were discovered following a study of working conditions within its supply chain. This audit took place in 2018 and studied employees across 30 countries.

Though Apple has since, at least publicly, attempted to rectify it’s human rights abuses, Chinese labor advocates are not buying it. “We already know what the conditions are like in the factories,” said China Labour Watch activist Fan Yuan. “What Apple needs to do right now is take action to solve the problems. This move is not really about solving the problems, but rather about Apple getting publicity and rebuilding its positive image.” Just last week, Apple went on to say its human rights record is now up to standards. “Apple is dedicated to ensuring everyone in our supply chain is treated with dignity and respect,” an Apple spokesperson told The New York Times reported last Wednesday. “We have found no evidence of any forced labor on Apple production lines and we plan to continue monitoring.”

However, The Australian Strategic Policy Institute does not quite agree with Apple’s rosy assessment of its own labour practices. According to the advocacy group, “The Chinese government has facilitated the mass transfer of Uyghur and other ethnic minority citizens from the far west region of Xinjiang to factories across the country. Under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour, Uyghurs are working in factories that are in the supply chains of at least 82 well-known global brands in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors, including Apple.” 

With one million Uighur Muslims in detention camps in China, commodified forced labor is hardly a way to move human rights forward. ProtonMail summed up the responsibility Apple faces as the world’s tech-hegemon. “We also believe that tech companies, particularly those with $55 billion in profits, have a minimum moral responsibility to uphold human rights, even if it is not legally enforceable. It is however, enforceable by us, as consumers. By choosing who we give money to, we signal what we consider to be an acceptable minimum moral responsibility.”

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