Late last week, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for protesters in Hong Kong: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” By this morning, however, he’d deleted the tweet and posted an apology — as Chinese companies pulled sponsorship over the message and Morey’s employers reportedly considered firing him.
This weekend’s controversy wasn’t unique — journalist Max Read listed companies that had apologized over slights like omitting Taiwan from a map of China on a t-shirt. But it was a microcosm of how companies struggle to deal with China’s influence. And while this case involved one man posting a personal opinion online, it’s particularly pertinent for companies that let millions of people post opinions and find facts online.
American tech companies have had to deal with Chinese government censorship and surveillance rules for years. Google initially brought Search to China by purging results about touchy topics like the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, until ending the practice by pulling out of China in 2010. Microsoft’s LinkedIn agreed to censor anti-government material in order to stay online, while Facebook and Twitter have been largely banned since 2009, when they helped citizens spread news about deadly riots in Xinjiang.
Far more recently, Apple removed pro-democracy songs by Hong Kong singers from its Chinese music store. And despite using its commitment to privacy as a selling point, it moved some iCloud data to Chinese servers in order to comply with local laws — raising concerns about whether this might have a chilling effect on what data people feel safe storing. Just last week, Apple reportedly removed Taiwan’s flag from its iOS emoji library in Hong Kong and Macau.
These are sweeping, consequential decisions about speech — and even when companies object, it’s hard for them to stay away from the massive Chinese market. Google has slowly reentered the China with file management and translation apps, and it started building a search engine that could track users and censor certain topics before stopping amid internal protests. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt apparently disagreed with the decision to leave in the first place — he wanted Google to “stay in China and help change China to be more open.”
As Vox writes, though, it’s unclear that the web is opening up China; in fact, China might be making the web itself less open. Tech companies sometimes tout their refusal to cooperate as a moral victory — Google did so in 2010, and Facebook recently boasted that it would “hold firm” on not storing data in authoritarian countries. But as we’ve seen with Google, that’s a hard position to maintain. Meanwhile, ByteDance — the Beijing-based creator of massive social video app TikTok — had no compunctions about building political suppression into its rules worldwide. ByteDance has even faced accusations that it censored videos about the Hong Kong protests, although that’s a harder claim to prove.
China isn’t the only country that pressures Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other tech companies to remove certain content — European “right to be forgotten” laws can be used as censorship tools, for instance. Other authoritarian countries have influence in Silicon Valley — particularly Saudi Arabia, a major tech investor. Fears about the Chinese government have created a factually dubious panic around companies like Huawei, which has been widely banned from operating in the US. At least one American company, Facebook, has used these fears as ammunition against antitrust investigators — claiming that if regulators check Facebook’s power, a pro-censorship Chinese alternative will take its place.
And the anger over Morey’s statement isn’t necessarily a top-down sentiment from the government. Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai argued that he’d offended local Rockets fans by questioning China’s sovereignty — and although there’s plenty of disingenuous propaganda online, Vox notes that there’s also a lot of sincere nationalism among real citizens. That doesn’t, however, change the fact that the NBA is suppressing support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Between China’s massive economic power, its government’s penchant for heavy-handed propaganda, and its terrifyingly comprehensive surveillance state, there’s reason to worry when American companies are so sensitive about what their employees put online. And as tech companies face pressure from governments across the world — often for failing to remove harmful material — there’s ever more reason to avoid offending China. An NBA manager deleting a tweet will have very little effect on most people’s lives. But this is ultimately an issue for anybody who puts their opinion online.