Hey Siri, is Apple ethical? Analysing their ‘Human Rights Policy’

Not long ago, Apple produced a document titled ‘Our Commitment to Human Rights’ in response to mounting criticism over its activities in China. But how did this document come about, what does it state, and what will it mean for you?

Why does Apple operate in China?

Apple, like many companies, is increasingly reliant on China for sales, labor and as a key part of its manufacturing supply chain. China has a near monopoly on rare earth metals – used in the semiconductor chips found in virtually all of Apple’s products. Two of Apple’s biggest assemblers – Foxconn and Pegatron – are based in the country and manufacture their products in China. Labor in certain regions of China is also much cheaper than in the West.

Why has Apple been criticized for operating in China?

Apple’s operations in China have put the $2 trillion company in an uncomfortable position. The firm often has acquiesced to Chinese demands when asked to. In particular, Apple has been criticized for a perceived lack of commitment towards freedom of expression and information. At the request of the Chinese government, Apple has taken down hundreds of VPN apps from its App Store. For those unfamiliar, VPNs allow people to access content where an Internet Service Provider or nation state would have otherwise blocked it. In China, they are a key tool to access content banned by censors. Accessing VPNs is therefore important for freedom of information. 

Apple has also come under fire for removing an app that allowed Hong Kong protestors to track the police right at the height of the protests. With systemic police brutality occurring in the region, the justification for the app’s removal from Hong Kong authorities was that protestors were using it to attack police – a dubious claim at best. By removing the app, Apple showed clear disregard for what Hong Kong protestors were fighting for.

Why has Apple released a human rights policy?

So what has motivated Apple to release a human rights policy – where other tech companies have been much quicker off the mark – addressing these faults? A lot of the pressure has come from shareholders, more than 40% of which voted to commit “to respect freedom of expression as a human right”. Although not a majority, the support for this vote was much higher than previously, prompting Apple to act. Pressure also came from a campaign run by SumOfUs – an organisation “committed to curbing the growing power of corporations”. SumOfUs’s campaign had the following goals:

  • Apple publicly commits to respecting freedom of expression as a human right.
  • Apple puts in place a panel of human rights experts or the equivalent to monitor the development and implementation of policies by which Apple will protect freedom of expression and access to information.
  • Apple reports annually to shareholders on the actions it’s taking in response to government or other third party demands that might limit free expression or access to information.

(Source: SumOfUs)

This campaign was a huge success, with over 135,000 liking it.

What does Apple’s human rights policy say?

  • Privacy: The policy affirms a commitment to security and user privacy, whilst also committing to “freedom of information and expression”.
  • Supply chain: Apple states that it “works hand in hand with our suppliers to ensure that every workplace provides a safe and respectful environment” for workers.
  • Environment: Apple states that it runs the company on “100 percent renewable energy”.
  • Diversity: Apple claims to be “committed to the essential work of improving diversity, increasing inclusion, and advancing racial justice”
  • International Human Rights standards: Apple states that it is “deeply committed to respecting internationally recognized human rights in our business operations, as set out in the United Nations International Bill of Human Rights and the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work”

What are the problems with Apple’s human rights policy?

One concern raised by some is that this policy repeatedly affirms to a commitment to local laws. The problem here is that these laws – particularly in China – are often in conflict with ideals of freedom upheld elsewhere.

Another concern with the document is that it is weak on how it can show progress in these areas – it offers little more than a promise to “work with a broad range of groups” and “consult with stakeholders” rather than provide quantifiable targets to meet.

How will Apple’s human rights policy impact the consumer?

At this point in time, it’s unclear how Apple’s human rights policy will impact its practices. Indeed, they have made no commitment to monitor what progress they are making in this area. In the human rights space, there is still allegations of the use of Uighurs as forced labor in some Chinese factories.

Policies such as this one from Apple are only to be welcomed, but ultimately actions speak louder than words and a a need exists for an entity to monitor human rights violations. But what can you do as a consumer to ensure that the rights of everyone are being upheld in what is a nuanced and complicated area? Sign up on our mailing list to obtain visibility into company’s ethics: https://rebolt.co/.