An odd-bedfellows pair of U.S. senators is questioning Apple Inc.’s commitment to defend free speech over the internet.
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Apple CEO Tim Cook in an Oct. 17 letter whether the company removed virtual private network (VPN) apps—which allow users to access blocked websites—from its China App Store at the request of Chinese authorities.
The New York Times reported July 29 that Apple removed a number of those apps from its app store in China.
If the Times report is correct, “we are concerned that Apple may be enabling the Chinese government’s censorship and surveillance of the Internet,” the senators wrote in an Oct. 17 letter to Cook. China’s Great Firewall blocks thousands of foreign websites including Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc.
Cruz was a lead opponent of the U.S. government’s 2016 handover of technical internet oversight to a nonprofit—out of concerns that such a move could open the door to online censorship. Cruz had questioned the role of Fadi Chehadé, former CEO of the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), in the China-organized World Internet Conference and whether that made ICANN complicit in China’s censorship practices.
Cook said in an Aug. 1 earnings call that the Chinese government did require Apple to remove some VPN apps and that while the company would rather have not done so, it was following the law. A spokesman for Cook declined to comment on the senators’ letter.
The senators asked Cook to describe the government’s request and whether Apple took action to oppose it. They asked for copies of any statements Apple made promoting freedom of speech or condemning censorship in China. They also asked whether Apple had a role in or supports the World Internet Conference.
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