Tim Cook Could Have His ‘Free Expression Award’ Taken From Him Because Of Chinese Censorship

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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A right-leaning nonprofit is asking the Newseum, a museum dedicated to the First Amendment, to revoke Apple CEO Tim Cook’s “Free Expression Award” due to censorship in China.

The National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) announced the decision Tuesday in an attempt “to preserve the integrity of Newseum mission, as well as the integrity of the Award itself.”

Cook accepted the honor April 18, but since then has engaged in corporate conduct that seems to go against freedom of expression.

The NLPC cited Apple’s quick capitulation to the Chinese in late July after the foreign government ordered companies to forbid people from using virtual private networks (VPNs).

The technology gives users the ability to navigate the web anonymously through an encrypted, secure connection. VPNs thus empower Chinese citizens with the ability to circumvent the country’s firewall (also known as the Great Firewall of China), which technically prohibits people from accessing many online services and sites that are available on the global internet. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, for example, are not accessible due to the firewall, so many Chinese citizens use Sina Weibo, a similar platform that is based in China and adheres to government’s calls for targeted censorship. (RELATED: Netflix Show Lasted Three Days In China Before It Got Censored)

Apple ultimately removed all apps that offer VPN services to comply with China’s demands. Certain companies, like ExpressVPN, found the decision to be “surprising and unfortunate.”

“We’re disappointed in this development, as it represents the most drastic measure the Chinese government has taken to block the use of VPNs to date, and we are troubled to see Apple aiding China’s censorship efforts,” the company stated in a blog post. “ExpressVPN strongly condemns these measures, which threaten free speech and civil liberties.”

Apple argued that it was “required” to remove “some VPN apps in China” because they didn’t meet “new regulations.” The NLPC pushed back against the justification, saying “it could have done the right thing and refused.”(RELATED: While Trashing Trump, Apple Is Selling Its Soul To Do Business In China)

If Apple were to stand up to China, however, the prospect of other companies following suit is uncertain, meaning China may not have felt compelled to stop imposing internet freedom-restricting policies. Nevertheless, NLPC President Peter Flaherty told Newseum President Peter S. Prichard in a letter that “it appears Cook is all for free speech as long as it does not affect his bottom line.”

Apple has acquiesced to the Chinese government on several occasions. The tech conglomerate removed The New York Times app from its Chinese app store at the beginning of the year due to orders from the country’s regulators. In June, the company announced that it is building a data center in China to adhere to the country’s strict new cybersecurity laws, which gives the country the ability to seize information on possible political dissidents and potentially pilfer foreign technology. The data center is expected to have Communist Party of China oversight.

The NLPC doesn’t only specify Apple’s decision to remove VPNs as a telling example. The group says Cook’s announcement that Apple would be making a $1 million dollar contribution to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is also a reason for its appeal to the Newseum. The NLPC says the tech company, which is also matching employee donations and making it easier for others to donate through iTunes, is empowering a group that’s “actions are calculated to silence, intimidate, and make civil discourse impossible.”

The SPLC has characterized a number of organizations as “hate groups” with dubious criteria, often lumping extremists like the KKK with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian conservative nonprofit. As the NLPC points out, Alliance Defending Freedom (under its former name the Alliance Defense Fund) participated in the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Center committee on Religious Liberty, making the Newseum’s praise of Cook, and Apple’s monetary support of the SPLC, all the more ironic and ethically confusing.

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