Apple shareholders to discuss human rights policies at 2020 annual meeting

Next year at Apple’ s annual meeting, shareholders will vote a non-binding resolution for transparency over human rights policies.

On 9 September 2019, SumOfUs, a consumer advocacy group, submitted the proposal claiming that the US tech company had limited individual freedom of expression kowtowing to China’s will, which led to punishment for Hong Kongers, Tibetans and Uighur Muslims. For instance, Apple banned the use of terms such as Tibet, Tiananmen and the Dalai Lama, that are blacklisted by the Chinese government from device engravings in its Apple stores in China. 

On 10 October 2019, after the resolution was drafted and submitted, Apple banned, a crowdsourced mapping application widely used in Hong Kong (HK), after criticism from Chinese state media. The mapping app had been used by residents to avoid protest areas but was also downloaded by protesters to track police locations. The developer of the did not accept the ban maintaining that the app simply gathers information already available in public domain. Moreover, the developer added that despite the app being used controversially, “protest is part of our freedom of speech”.

Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, justified the ban stating that the app was used to target individual officers, and it did not comply with HK law. Apple unsuccessfully tried to strike the resolution from the annual meeting’s agenda, but in October 2019, The US Securities and Exchange Commission denied it.

Apple faced similar allegations both in 2016 and in 2018, but social activists’ resolutions drew less than 10% approval. However, the resolution could damage Apple’s marks on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues. Apple enjoys ESG credits among investors, and it is the largest holding of iShares MSCI ACWI Low Carbon Target ETF (CRBN), an ESG pioneering exchange-traded fund managed by BlackRock with $462.9m of net assets under management which includes Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp and Amazon Com Inc.

Even though a date for 2020 Apple’s annual meeting has not been scheduled yet, the US tech corporation’s meetings are typical held in late February. It is no doubt true that the momentum around the news will be lost by that date. However, it marks the importance for big corporations to address transparently policies concerning free speech and access to information.

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