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‘The Great Firewall’ and the cost of doing tech business in China

What responsibility do U.S. tech companies have to stand up to China’s censorship efforts?

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Photo Illustration by Michelle Budge

SALT LAKE CITY — When Apple removed an app used by pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong from its app store last month, the company was accused of compromising its democratic values to appease China. The controversy spurred a global conversation about what responsibility U.S. tech companies have to stand up to China’s censorship efforts. 

HKmap.live, the app Apple removed, relies on user-generated information to track law enforcement activity in real time and was used by ordinary Hong Kong citizens to avoid dangerous clashes between police and protesters, according to Charles Mok, a member of Hong Kong’s legislative council, who wrote a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook

“We Hongkongers will definitely look closely at whether Apple chooses to uphold its commitment to free expression and other basic human rights, or become an accomplice for Chinese censorship and oppression,” Mok wrote in the letter. 


An anti-government protester throws a Molotov cocktail during a demonstration near Central Government Complex in Hong Kong, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. Police fired a water cannon and tear gas at protesters who lobbed Molotov cocktails outside the Hong Kong government office complex Sunday, as violence flared anew after thousands of pro-democracy supporters marched through downtown in defiance of a police ban.

Vincent Yu, Associated Press

This wasn’t the first time Apple has been accused of removing apps from its store because the Chinese government didn’t like them. And not just Apple, but companies like Google, and Microsoft have long grappled with how to do business in a country where Internet freedom is severely limited, said James Hughes, executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, based in Boston, Massachusetts.

The Internet as Americans know it does not function in China. Sites including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, The New York Times and Google are all blocked by the largest system of censorship in the world, known as “The Great Firewall.” With cooperation from domestic technology and telecommunications companies, the Chinese government has been able to ban online references to anything from student protests in Tiananmen Square to Winnie the Pooh (a symbol used to poke fun at China’s president Xi Jinping).

This hasn’t stopped U.S. companies from trying to do business in China though. Microsoft censors results from its Bing search engine in the country. Project Dragonfly, a Google initiative to build a search engine for China that would be compliant with the “Great Firewall,” was terminated following backlash from employees and the public last year. And in 2016, Facebook was criticized for developing censorship tools in an effort to convince China to allow the social media site to operate in the country.

The stakes are high because China is a huge market with more than 1.3 billion potential customers. In Apple’s case, the country is a manufacturing base for hundreds of millions of iPhones sold around the world and provides close to $50 billion in annual sales, according to Forbes. But the government’s human rights abuses, including widespread censorship, surveillance and the rounding of minority Uighur Muslims into reeducation camps, are helping China build “the most frightening totalitarian regime in history,” said Hughes.  

The problem is, U.S. businesses want access to “a lucrative Chinese market” and “highly cost-competitive Chinese producers,” but face pressure from American customers and shareholders who don’t approve of China’s surveillance and censorship activities, said Jaques deLisle, director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania. 

In a letter to staff, Apple CEO Tim Cook did not suggest there was a financial motive in removing the HKmap.live app, and instead explained that the app was removed because it violated company guidelines and was being used for criminal purposes, according to information from Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau. 

“These decisions are never easy, and it is harder still to discuss these topics during moments of furious public debate,” said Cook.

Joe Westby, researcher on technology and human rights for Amnesty International said that a choice between upholding free speech and doing business in China is one that all tech companies have to make. 

The decision is critical, he added, because China is promoting a vision for the Internet where governments have absolute control over what information is available to the public, and that could set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world. 

“This is a defining moment for Silicon Valley,” said Westby. “If American companies are seen to be capitulating to that model of the Internet, it will be a dark day for Internet freedom worldwide.” 


Because for-profit companies have a duty to shareholders to make money, some experts like deLisle have questioned whether economic interests let businesses “off the hook” when it comes to human rights issues. “It is at least a fair question,” deLisle said. 

As a society, we cannot rely on the ethics of for-profit companies to protect privacy or freedom of speech, said Hughes, who thinks democratic institutions are the appropriate agencies to set guidelines for the private sector. 

Companies like Apple have made the argument that the best way to help countries where freedoms are limited, like China, is to continue doing business there. In answer to an inquiry from Senator Ted Cruz in 2017 about whether Apple was enabling China’s surveillance of the Internet, Apple executive Cynthia Hogan wrote, “We believe that our presence in China helps promote greater openness, and facilitates the free flow of ideas and information.” 

“We are convinced that Apple can best promote fundamental rights, including the right of free expression, by being engaged even where we may disagree with a particular country’s laws,” she continued.  

Westby, who has seen more examples of tech companies bending to China’s censorship rules than of tech companies having a positive influence on human rights in the country, said he is skeptical of this argument. 

“It’s hard to see how U.S. companies giving in to demands from China helps move the dial in any way to a freer and more open Internet in China,” said Westby. “I don’t think the companies have made the case for how there would be more benefit to them being there than harm.”  


The “fundamental underlying problem” in the tech industry, according to Westby, is that too often, companies are left to self-regulate. 

Amnesty International has repeatedly called on countries like the United States to make a system for identifying and acting upon potential human rights risks mandatory for multinational corporations like Google, Apple and Microsoft. Such a law would hold these companies accountable if they cause harm abroad. Similar policies are being adopted around the world in countries like France, which passed a law in 2017 that requires companies to establish plans to prevent human rights violations and environmental degradation and report those to the government. While many American tech companies already have their own processes for evaluating human rights impacts, Westby said he hopes for a system that is independent of the companies themselves and legally binding.  

Currently, the U.S. State Department is looking at requiring a “due diligence” human rights risk analysis for companies exporting surveillance technology to a foreign country. Draft guidance of the rule was released in September.

Foreign Policy reported that some Chinese companies investing in facial and voice recognition software used by the Chinese government for surveillance have ties to U.S. firms and institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Thermo Fisher allegedly sold DNA sequencers directly to Chinese authorities for genetic mapping in Xinjiang, the region that Uighur Muslims call home, according to Foreign Policy. These U.S.-based organizations may be providing “expertise, reputational credence, and even technology to Chinese surveillance companies, wittingly or otherwise,” authors Lindsay Gorman and Matt Schrader wrote. Buzzfeed News reported that Apple, Amazon and Google are still distributing products from Chinese companies that have been blacklisted for helping with the surveillance and detention of Uighur Muslims.

While selling surveillance technology directly to the Chinese government, knowing it could be used for the persecution of minority groups like the Uighurs, is clearly problematic, other cases of U.S. firms assisting in China’s abuse of human rights might not be so obvious and could be harder to regulate. 

There is a difference between direct assistance of a foreign government’s violation of human rights, and simply selling ordinary modern computer and communications tools abroad, said Hughes.

Hughes drew a comparison to IBM’s work with Nazi Germany. Before and during WWII, IBM provided computing technology, training and equipment that helped German authorities track the Jewish population. 

“Perhaps 1930s USA should have had a ban on doing business with the Third Reich, but should Microsoft be held accountable for China using Word and Excel to enact their policies? Probably not,” said Hughes. “But should a firm be forbidden from selling facial recognition software to China, or helping to set up their Sesame credit score system? Yes, I think they should, just as we forbid selling the Chinese military-relevant technology.” 

One potential negative consequence of forcing companies like Apple and Google to uphold free speech is that it could forces these companies out of the Chinese market and further segregate the global Internet, according to Hughes. But, he said, “it’s the right thing to do.”