US lawmakers from both parties slammed Apple and Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook on Friday for "censorship of apps" at the "behest of the Chinese government." Senators Ted Cruz, Ron Wyden, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mike Gallagher and Tom Malinowski expressed concern about the removal of an app that let Hong Kong protesters track police movement in the city.
"Apple's decisions last week to accommodate the Chinese government by taking down HKmaps is deeply concerning," they wrote in a letter to Cook, urging Apple to "reverse course, to demonstrate that Apple puts values above market access, and to stand with the brave men and women fighting for basic rights and dignity in Hong Kong." Apple didn't respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Apple removed the HKmap.live app from the App Store in China and Hong Hong earlier this month, saying it violated local laws. The company also said it received "credible information" from Hong Kong authorities indicating the software was being used "maliciously" to attack police. The decision, and the reasoning, was questioned widely.
Cook, in a recent memo to Apple employees, said that "national and international debates will outlive us all, and, while important, they do not govern the facts." On Thursday, the CEO met with China's State Administration for Market Regulation head Xiao Yaqing in Beijing to discuss consumer-rights protection, boosting investment and business development in the country, according to a statement from the Chinese regulator.
The Cupertino, California-based company isn't the only one referenced in Friday's letter. The lawmakers mentioned recent headlines involving the National Basketball Association and Activision Blizzard Inc., a video game company that suspended a professional game player for supporting the Hong Kong protests.
"Cases like these raise real concern about whether Apple and other large US corporate entities will bow to growing Chinese demands rather than lose access to more than a billion Chinese consumers," the lawmakers wrote.
They also slammed Apple for removing other apps, including VPN apps that helped Chinese people get around the government's online censorship. The letter said Apple has "censored" at least 2,200 apps in China, citing data from non-profit organization GreatFire. Apple says on its website that it removed 634 apps in the second half of last year globally due to legal violations.
The letter implied that Apple made the removal decisions to maintain its huge business in China and appease the government. Greater China was Apple's third-largest region by revenue last year, generating more than $50 billion in revenue.
Apple is one of the rare tech companies that operates in China, with rivals like Google and Facebook Inc. hardly operational in the market. China's importance to Apple means the company has to balance its own values with following local laws.
In the past, the company has pulled the Skype and New York Times apps from its App Store in China. More recently, it removed a Taiwanese flag emoji for users in Hong Kong and Macau and was criticized for sending some browsing data to China's Tencent Holdings as part of a privacy feature.