Coalition of activist groups pens open letter to Tim Cook over human rights failings

Tim Cook
Tim Cook (Image credit: Apple)

What you need to know

  • A coalition of 154 activist groups has written to Apple over its failure to protect freedom of information and expression.
  • The group says Apple has failed to enact its own human rights policy introduced earlier this year.
  • The letter also criticizes lobbying efforts to undermine the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, continued repression of Apple Store employees in Hong Kong, and more.

A coalition of more than 150 activist groups has penned an open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook highlighting the company's failure to enact its own human rights policy.

The letter, published today, was written by 154 groups representing Tibetan, Uyghur, Southern Mongolian, Hongkonger, Taiwanese, and Chinese people, in response to Apple's "continued failure to protect freedom of information and expression" despite a new human rights policy it introduced in August.

From the letter:

In June, at the Worldwide Developers Conference, you addressed the issue of equality head-on saying: "We must all aim far higher to build a future that lives up to our ideals. This means taking action."While your statement was addressing racial justice, it was swiftly followed by Apple's Human Rights Policy, formalizing the company's commitment to human rights on a global scale, including supply chain standards and the rights of freedom of expression, access to information, and privacy. We were initially encouraged by this move.

However, the letter says that writing a policy document is not enough, and highlighted several failings from Apple since despite dialogue with many groups from within the coalition. Specifically the letter highlights:

  • Apple's lobbying efforts to undermine and make less transparent Apple's responsibilities under the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act"
  • The "continued repression" of freedom of expression by banning Hong Kong Apple Store employees from publicly support the pro-democracy movement, as well as censoring pro-freedom and pro-democracy slogans for product engraving
  • Failure to detail mechanisms for implementing the commitments laid out in Apple's Human Rights Policy

The group further highlighted repression across China:

We know you are aware of the extent of China's repression across China, occupied Tibet, East Turkistan, Southern Mongolia, and most recently Hong Kong. It's hard to overstate the chilling effect the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) censorship and surveillance regime has on freedom of expression, severely restricting and limiting the civil and political rights of those living under Chinese rule. This includes the construction of an Orwellian surveillance state in occupied Tibet, the incarceration of between 1.8 to 3 million Uyghurs, the recent demolition of "One Country Two Systems" in Hong Kong that breaches multiple international laws and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, cultural genocide in Southern Mongolia, the ongoing military intimidation and geopolitical bullying of Taiwan, and the detention, disappearance, and death of countless Chinese lawyers, feminists, democracy activists, and anyone else deemed a threat by the Chinese Communist Party.

The letter also accuses Apple of enabling violations of human rights in Hong Kong, in particular the sentencing of several pro-democracy activists who had "evidence" leveraged against them in court, seemingly extracted from a locked iPhone.

The group says Apple "simply cannot continue to repeat the age-old rhetoric that engagement is the pathway forward to improving human rights in China and regions under the Chinese government's control, and that the Company's hands are tied given national law."

Whilst the coalition recognizes there is no "magic wand", it says that people need Apple "to take concrete steps" towards making changes.

In a press release accompanying the letter, the coalition stated:

The tech giant introduced the new policy following shareholder pressure over its respect for human rights in China, including blocking apps like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) from China's App Store that help users evade censorship and surveillance. Shareholders filed a new proposal calling on Apple to report on how it is implementing the human rights policy, but Apple's lawyers took action to prevent the proposal being discussed or voted on.

Pema Doma, from Students for a Free Tibet, said that by blocking the vote, Apple was "trying to silence us", and wanted to "brush Chinese, Uyghur, Tibetan, and Hongkonger human rights under the carpet" whilst bowing to CCP censorship demands.

SumOfUs's Vicky Wyatt stated that Apple's human rights policy was "nothing but empty words", and that Apple had doubled down on censorship whilst stating it values free expression.

You can read the full letter here.

Stephen Warwick
News Editor

Stephen Warwick has written about Apple for five years at iMore and previously elsewhere. He covers all of iMore's latest breaking news regarding all of Apple's products and services, both hardware and software. Stephen has interviewed industry experts in a range of fields including finance, litigation, security, and more. He also specializes in curating and reviewing audio hardware and has experience beyond journalism in sound engineering, production, and design. Before becoming a writer Stephen studied Ancient History at University and also worked at Apple for more than two years. Stephen is also a host on the iMore show, a weekly podcast recorded live that discusses the latest in breaking Apple news, as well as featuring fun trivia about all things Apple. Follow him on Twitter @stephenwarwick9