Apple CEO Tim Cook has defended the company’s decision to remove the controversial HKmap.live app from its virtual store. But his explanations have drawn fire from politicians in the U.S. – and praise from China.
The app, conceived by anonymous developers, displays crowd-sourced data about the location of protest operations, and where police are congregated. After initially being rejected by Apple, it was made available in the App Store on Oct. 4. But it was removed Thursday after Apple was criticized as “reckless” in mainland Chinese media Wednesday and accused of “illegal acts.”
The app’s developers used social media to publish the App Store’s explanation. Later Thursday, Cook sent an internal letter to employees with a slightly longer justification.
“Over the past several days we received credible information, from the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau, as well as from users in Hong Kong, that the app was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimize individuals and property where no police are present,” Cook wrote. “This use put the app in violation of Hong Kong law. Similarly, widespread abuse clearly violates our App Store guidelines barring personal harm.”
Apple earns more than $5 billion per year of revenue in China and sees large volumes of its consumer electronics products, including many iPhones, manufactured in the country.
In the U.S., lawmakers on both sides of the aisle criticized Apple for not standing up in favor of democratic values and free speech. “An authoritarian regime is violently suppressing its own citizens who are fighting for democracy. Apple just sided with them,” said Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, quoted by Verge.
“Looks like the Chinese censors have had a word with them since,” Republican Sen. Josh Hawley tweeted. “Who is really running Apple? Tim Cook or Beijing?”
Chinese media saw Apple’s retreat differently. The state-owned China Daily newspaper ran a prominent story with the headline: “Right decision for Apple to remove police-tracking app.” The report quoted Hong Kong lawmaker Elizabeth Quat Pui-fan, chairwoman of the Legislative Council’s Panel on Information Technology and Broadcasting, as saying: “Only criminals need to evade the police,” and “the app may have played a role in putting front-line police officers in more dangerous situations.”
The controversy over the HKmap.Live app is the latest element in an evolving narrative about the Hong Kong protests. At loggerheads are two incompatible political and economic systems within China – democratic, free-market, liberal Hong Kong versus the authoritarian mainland. Under the agreement signed by China when it assumed sovereignty over Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, China guaranteed to allow Hong Kong to exercise a high degree of autonomy.
The last few days have seen the National Basketball Association and the animated show “South Park” embroiled in the dispute. Games maker Activision Blizzard, in which China’s Tencent has a 5% stake, stripped a player of his earnings from playing “Hearthstone” after he wore a gas mask and goggles and shouted, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time” in a post-game interview.