Apple should respond to shareholder proposal critical of China App Store takedowns, experts say

Apple held its annual shareholders meeting earlier today, which included votes on six different proposals, comments from Tim Cook, and a question and answer session. One of the proposals was specifically critical of Apple’s cooperation with requests from the Chinese government to remove certain apps from the App Store.

Reuters reports this evening, however, that even though that proposal was voted down at today’s meeting, the pressure is mounting against Apple.

The proposal called on Apple to publicly acknowledge if it had “publicly committed to respect freedom of expression as a human right.” It specifically took issue with Apple removing VPN applications from the App Store in China in 2017. These VPN applications were popular for allowing users in China to bypass China’s internet firewall restrictions.

The shareholder proposal presented today was voted down, but by a slimmer margin than past human rights efforts. This year, 40.6% of voters cast support for the measure. For comparison’s sake, a 2018 proposal focused on creating a human rights panel to oversee censorship in China, was voted down by 94.4% of people.

Apple opposed this year’s proposal by arguing it already provides ample data for App Store takedown requests. Multiple experts who spoke to Reuters, however, believe the pressure is mounting against the company. One of them explained:

“A total this high is a striking warning — and it must have come from big institutional investors, not just retail shareholders — that Apple’s human rights policy in China has become a material risk for the company’s reputation,” said Stephen Davis, a senior fellow at Harvard Law School’s Program on Corporate Governance.

“Apple will be under great pressure to respond rather than ignore this vote,” Davis said.

Reuters also points out that last month, Apple’s privacy chief Jane Horvath signed a letter to the open-internet advocacy group Access Now, emphasizing that Apple considers “freedom of expression a fundamental human right.” In the letter, Horvath also said that Apple “will consider providing additional details on our commitment in the future.”

So while today’s proposal was voted down, it certainly seems possible that Apple is planning its own transparency efforts behind the scenes. Read the full report at Reuters.

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