Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, raised concerns to Apple CEO Tim Cook on Thursday over the company’s removal of 400 virtual private network apps from its Chinese App Store.
In a public letter with a list of 10 questions, Cruz and Leahy argued Apple’s removal of VPN apps in July may only strengthen stringent Chinese online censorship.
“If these reports are true, we are concerned that Apple may be enabling the Chinese government’s censorship and surveillance of the Internet,” wrote Cruz and Leahy.
VPN apps allow users to securely access a private network while sharing data on public networks. This provides the security and privacy while roaming the internet without intervention. In China, users increasingly use VPNs to circumvent the “Great Firewall,” a nickname for legislation and bureaus that regulate and surveil the internet.
Cruz and Leahy criticized China’s human rights record as “abysmal,” including on freedom of expression and of access to information. They cited a report from Reporters Without Borders calling China “the enemy of the Internet.”
Cook explained Apple’s decision to remove VPN apps from China in an earnings call in August.
“We would obviously rather not remove the apps, but like we do in other countries, we follow the law wherever we do business,” said Cook. “We strongly believe in participating in markets and bringing benefits to customers is the best interest of the folks there and in other countries as well.”
Apple’s relationship with China has been a rocky one. Once the leading smartphone seller in the most populous country in the world, Apple saw iPhone sales struggle amid the rise of domestic companies such as Huawei and Xiaomi. In July, Apple sent its vice president of wireless technologies, Isabel Ge Mahe, to oversee Chinese operations.
On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that China’s main telecom carriers abruptly cut cellular service to the new Apple Watch because the Watch’s SIM card is not in line with Beijing’s standards in order to track its users.
At the end of the letter, Cruz and Leahy turned Cook’s own words against him. Cook gave a speech after receiving Newseum’s 2017 Free Expression award earlier this year, where he said Apple helps people and companies around the world to “speak up.”
“While Apple’s many contributions to the global exchange of information are admirable, removing 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’,” the senators wrote. “To the contrary, if Apple complies with such demands from the Chinese government it inhibits free expression for users across China.”
Photo: A man works inside an unauthorized Apple mobile workshop in Shanghai on Aug. 15, 2017. (CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)
Tags: Apple, censorship, China, Patrick Leahy, Ted Cruz, Tim Cook, VPN