Photo: Win McNamee (Getty)

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers on Friday cosigned letters sent to the chief executives of Apple and Blizzard expressing “deep concern” over recent decisions by the American companies that have negatively impacted overseas app users and gamers “at the behest of the Chinese government.”

The letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook was written to express “strong concern” over Apple’s decision to remove certain apps from its Chinese app store, including HKMapLive, an app used by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong to track police activity. Apple said in a statement that it removed the app on its own’s accord, and not in response to demands from China, because it received “credible information” that it was being used to “victimize individuals and property”.

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“Hong Kong’s authorities have aggressively moved against these protestors with the support of the Chinese government,” the lawmakers’ letter states. “In the face of this brutal repression, tools like HKMap let peaceful demonstrators share locations to avoid and help to keep peaceful protestors out of harms way.”

The lawmakers said that Apple has censored some 2,200 apps in China, including those “made by and for oppressed ethnic minorities, including the Uyghur and Tibetan communities,” citing figures compiled by the non-profit organization GreatFire.

The letter continues:

You have said publicly that you want to work with China’s leaders to effect change rather than sit on the sidelines and yell at them. We, too, believe that democracy and trade can be democratizing forces. But when a repressive government refuses to evolve or, indeed, when it doubles down, cooperation can become complicity.

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The letter to Apple was signed by Democrats Sen. Ron Wyden, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rep. Tom Malinowski, and Republicans Sen. Tom Cotton, Sen. Maro Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Rep. Mike Gallagher.

In a separate letter to Activision Blizzard CEO Robert Kotick—signed by Wyden, Rubio, Ocasio-Cortez, Gallagher, and Malinowski—lawmakers called Blizzard’s recent controversial decision to ban professional Hearthstone player Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai “particularly concerning” and said that recent calls to boycott the company’s products are understandable.

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“Your company claims to stand by ‘one’s right to express individual thoughts and opinions,’ yet many of your own employees believe that Activision Blizzard’s decision to punish Mr. Chung runs counter to those values,” the lawmakers wrote.

They continued:

Because your company is such a pillar of the gamy industry, your disappointing decision could have a chilling effect on gamers who seek to use their platform to promote human rights and basic freedoms. Indeed, many gamers around the world have taken notice of your company’s actions, understandably calling for boycotts of Activision Blizzard gaming sites.

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The letter goes on to urge Blizzard to “reverse course” on its decision to punish Blitzchung and says the company “must decide” what’s more important: freedom of speech or preserving access to China’s consumer market.

Blizzard this week suspended three more Hearthstone players after they held up a “Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizz” sign during an official competition stream, VICE first reported on Wednesday. At the same time, the company also bowed to pressure and reduced Blitzchung’s suspension from one year to six months and restored his prize money, which it had previously seized.

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But Blizzard also defended its decision, saying in a statement by president J. Allen Brack that, had the opposite political viewpoint been expressed by a player, the company would have “acted the same.”

People attend a flash mob rally in the Central district on October 18, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong stretched into its fifth month after the Chinese territory’s government invoked emergency powers earlier this month to introduce an anti-mask law.
Photo: Billy H.C. Kwok / Getty

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Nevertheless, Blizzard’s punishment of Blitzchung has had far-reaching conseqeunces. Digital activists have called on gamers to boycott popular Blizzard titles like Diablo, Overwatch, and Hearthstone, sign petitions, and even protest at next month’s BlizzCon 2019 in Anaheim, California.

“Decisions about how to moderate online content are some of the most important decisions that humans are making right now. Full stop,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, which recently launched a campaign called Gamers For Freedom. “Companies should make content moderation decisions based on the needs of their community and humanity as a whole, not based on pressure from governments, whether it’s the US, China, or the UK.”

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Asked about the level of activism surrounding the Blizzard controversy, Greer said that she’d seen a lot of “Internet outrage” in her time, adding: “This feels different... It’s good a good reminder that the Internet still knows how to fight for freedom.”