At least two American tech companies, Apple and gaming giant Blizzard, have come under fire – from different quarters – for wading into waters surrounding the Hong Kong protests that have been ongoing since June. The situation is shaping up to be a test for the American tech sector’s commitment to democratic values, privacy, and an open and free internet.
The increasingly violent protests began after Beijing proposed a plan to extradite criminals to mainland China, thus putting Hong Kong citizens under the jurisdiction of the more restrictive regime of the People’s Republic. Dissenters say the plan would undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy (it has designated status as a special autonomous region) and pave the way for infringement of residents’ civil liberties.
Apple has removed a controversial app from the App Store called HKmap.live, which crowdsources the location of police and anti-government protesters in Hong Kong. That’s after the tech giant was called out by Chinese state-run media earlier this week as protecting “rioters.” In effect, the app helps protesters avoid areas with a heavy police presence. It was originally rejected, but Apple approved the app for the App Store on appeal. It went live Oct 5 — and was removed on Thursday.
“This is an interesting test case for Apple in China,” tweeted Ryan Gallagher, an investigative reporter for Bloomberg. “Now state media accusing Apple of complicity in crime.”
To wit: The state-backed People’s Daily carried a story on Wednesday with the headline, “Protecting rioters – Has Apple thought clearly about this?” It added that Apple’s “mixing of political, commercial and illegal activities” is “unwise” and “imprudent” and that “allowing the ‘poisonous’ app to flourish is a betrayal of the Chinese people’s feelings.”
Soon after, Apple removed the app and issued a statement:
We created the App Store to be a safe and trusted place to discover apps. We have learned that an app, HKmap.live, has been used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong. Many concerned customers in Hong Kong have contacted us about this app and we immediately began investigating it. The app displays police locations and we have verified with the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement. This app violates our guidelines and local laws, and we have removed it from the App Store.
The official Twitter account of the app responded, saying, “There is 0 evidence to support CSTCB’s accusation that HKmap App has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement.”
Reaction to the situation has tended towards the cynical.
“While the events of recent days may be among the most high-profile examples, this is far from the first time Western tech companies have backed down when China has flexed its muscles,” Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN.com, told Threatpost. “For Apple, and really any Western tech company with a foothold in the Chinese market, it really doesn’t pay to rock the boat and risk their access to such an important source of revenue growth. We’ve seen that time and again, from Apple’s removal of VPN apps from the App Store in 2017 to its recent removals of the Taiwan flag emoji from iOS users in Hong Kong along with the HKmap.live app, whatever China wants, China will get.”
Meanwhile, news organization Quartz tweeted that Apple has removed its mobile app from the Chinese version of its App Store after complaints from the Chinese government, thanks to the publication’s ongoing coverage of the Hong Kong protests.
Apple just took the Quartz app out of the Chinese app store at the request of China, and https://t.co/M7MXa7n7AG is now blocked from mainland China. Our excellent @qz coverage of ongoing Hong Kong protests may be the reason: https://t.co/FI4pcyzARz
— John Keefe (@jkeefe) October 9, 2019
In tandem with the Apple controversy, Blizzard Entertainment, creator of World of Warcraft and other popular games, is facing harsh criticism from the gaming community after it banned a Hong Kong player who made comments in support of the protests.
Ng Wai Chung, also known as “Blitzchung,” was playing in an eSports tournament for online card game Hearthstone when he said, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” during a livestreamed post-match interview. Blizzard disqualified Chung on the grounds that the tournament bans political speech, banned him from playing for a year, and stripped him of any potential winnings.
It also posted a sort of apology to China from its official Weibo account.
Other players took to social media to express their outrage at the move, posting screenshots of themselves uninstalling games and canceling subscriptions; the #BoycottBlizzard hashtag remains a trending topic. One of the more high-profile voices condemning Blizzard’s decision is Mark Kern, one of the designers of World of Warcraft.
“We are in a situation where unlimited Communist money dictates our American values,” he tweeted on Wednesday. “We censor our games for China, we censor our movies for China. Now, game companies are silencing voices for freedom and democracy.”
This hurts. But until Blizzard reverses their decision on @blitzchungHS I am giving up playing Classic WoW, which I helped make and helped convince Blizzard to relaunch. There will be no Mark of Kern guild after all.
Let me explain why I am #BoycottBlizzard
— Mark Kern (@Grummz) October 9, 2019
Politicians have gotten involved as well, with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) tweeting, “Blizzard shows it is willing to humiliate itself to please the Chinese Communist Party. No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck.”
Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) weighed in as well: “Recognize what’s happening here. People who don’t live in #China must either self-censor or face dismissal & suspensions,” he tweeted. “China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally. Implications of this will be felt long after everyone in U.S. politics today is gone.”
Another Blizzard game, Overwatch, has been pressed into service by those unhappy with the company’s decision to ban Chung. One of the game’s heroes, Mei, has been turned into a digital leader of the resistance after a subreddit post nominated her as an ideal pro-Hong Kong symbol. Bloggers and social-media denizens have subsequently posted memes showing Mei as a protest heroine with the stated goal of trying to get Overwatch banned in China.
The controversy comes after the NBA’s Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted (then deleted) a GIF showing support for protesters. Even though Morey tweeted from his own personal account and not as a spokesperson for the Rockets or the NBA, he swiftly came under fire, with state TV and Chinese companies canceling their partnerships with the league and the NBA itself issuing an apology.
Neither Apple nor Blizzard are further discussing their stances on the controversies – though Engadget reported that the latter is “weighing its options” after the user backlash. However, one thing is certain, these situations are representative of what is increasingly a minefield for U.S. companies wanting to do business in one of the largest markets in the world. As FT reporter Oman Al Omran noted:
This is the point every company dealing with China will reach: what matters more, money or values? https://t.co/EVI1qAzk1z
— Ahmed Al Omran (@ahmed) October 8, 2019
Migliano added, “While this trend is not new, it’s likely to be increasingly visible in future as big global companies weigh up whether it’s better to toe China’s line or risk being frozen out and suffer the financial consequences.”
However, some note that the leverage flows both ways. Lanny Davis for instance, former White House Special Counsel under Bill Clinton, tweeted, “When will US consumers boycott all @Apple products and China products and any company (including @NBA) that yields to dictatorial censorship and economic extortion by China. Chinese government beware – You need US consumers.”
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