This week, Senators Ted Cruz and Patrick Leahy, senators of the United States, sent a letter to Tim Cook, the Apple CEO, asking for answers after the iPhone maker got rid of some privacy-providing apps from its Chinese App Store.
In the letter, the senators stated that China had an “abysmal” record on human rights with respect to free access to information online and offline and freedom of expression.
Leahy and Cruz wrote that they were worried that Apple “may be enabling the Chinese government’s censorship and surveillance of the Internet.”
Apple did not reply immediately to requests for comments.
In July, Apple removed numerous virtual private network (VPN) apps from the Chinese version of its App Store. Some of the affected VPN providers received a notification from the iPhone maker that their apps were removed from the App Store for including “content that is illegal” on the mainland.
VPNs enable users in China to bypass the infamous “Great Firewall” of the country that heavily regulates access to foreign websites. Those apps also allow privacy by concealing browsing activities from internet service providers.
Tim Cook, in an earnings call, addressed the decision on the removal of those apps. He stated that while Apple would “obviously rather not remove the apps,” it will continue to abide by the law in whichever country it does business.
The senators wrote that Tim Cook was given the free speech award at the 2017 Free Expression Awards at Newseum, where he stated, according to the said letter, “First we defend, we work to defend these freedoms by enabling people around the world to speak up. And second, we do it by speaking up ourselves.”
Leahy and Cruz said that the removal of VPN apps “that allow individuals in China to evade the Great Firewall and access the Internet privately does not enable people in China to ‘speak up.'”
In a comprehensive list of questions, the senators asked Tim Cook to explain if the tech giant had raised concerns when Beijing was forming its cybersecurity laws or if Apple pushed back when it was asked to remove several of the apps.
They also asked if Apple had preemptively removed any apps from the China App Store and whether it had either condemned the “government’s censorship and surveillance mechanisms” or promoted freedom of speech in the country.
Last January, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in China started a campaign to “clean up” the internet connections of the country by March 31, 2018. The ministry stated that, while the internet access service market of China was facing an unusual opportunity for improvement, there were also signs of irregular development that needed to be fixed.
Since then, the Chinese government had begun several initiatives that have toughened control of the internet inside the country and have lessened online anonymity.
To be sure, the removal of Apple of those apps was not the first time that cyber regulators of Beijing had gone after VPN providers.