The CEOs of Apple and Google spoke at a conference that critics say makes them 'complicit actors in the Chinese censorship regime'

  • Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai attended the World Internet Conference in China. 
  • At the conference, a top communist party official called for tighter control of the internet.
  • U.S. Senators asked Apple earlier this year if Apple supports the conference, quoting a critic who said that attending the conference makes American business officials 'complicit actors in the Chinese censorship regime.'

The CEOs of the two most valuable technology companies spoke over the weekend at a controversial event in China. 

Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai both appeared at China's World Internet Conference, a gathering the Chinese government reportedly uses to promote its strategy of tightly controlling what's available online in the country. 

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Apple CEO Tim Cook attends the opening ceremony of the fourth World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, December 3, 2017. REUTERS/Aly Song
Nov 25, 2017; Auburn, AL, USA; Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook arrives for College GameDay before the game between the Auburn Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at The Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York, U.S., September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Apple CEO Tim Cook (R) plays with an iPhone as Jonathan Ive, Apple's Chief Design Officer, looks on during a launch event in Cupertino, California, U.S. September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during Commencement Exercises at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Apple CEO Tim Cook smiles as he arrives to a product demo during the annual Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California, U.S. June 5, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Tim Cook, CEO, speaks during Apple's annual world wide developer conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California, U.S. June 5, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Apple CEO Tim Cook attends the China Development Forum in Beijing, China, March 18, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
Apple Inc CEO Tim Cook waves during an Apple media event in San Francisco, California, U.S. September 7, 2016. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach
Apple Inc CEO Tim Cook makes his closing remarks during an Apple media event in San Francisco, California, U.S. September 7, 2016. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an event at the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California March 21, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook speaks during a event for students to learn to write computer code at the Apple store in the Manhattan borough of New York December 9, 2015. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during the Wall Street Journal Digital Live ( WSJDLive ) conference at the Montage hotline Laguna Beach, California October 19, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces the new iPad Pro during an Apple media event in San Francisco, California, September 9, 2015. Reuters/Beck Diefenbach
Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers his keynote address at the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, California June 8, 2015. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 03: Apple CEO Tim Cook looks on as the new iPhone X goes on sale at an Apple Store on November 3, 2017 in Palo Alto, California. The highly anticipated iPhone X went on sale around the world today. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple, Inc., smiles as he greets customers during the opening of the new Apple Michigan Avenue store in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017. The building features exterior walls made entirely of glass with four interior columns supporting a 111-by-98 foot carbon-fiber roof, designed to minimize the boundary between the city and the Chicago River. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 20: Apple CEO Tim Cook greets guests at the grand opening of Apple's Chicago flagship store on Michigan Avenue October 20, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The glass-sided store sits on shore of the Chicago River in the city's downtown. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 20: Apple CEO Tim Cook greets guests at the grand opening of Apple's Chicago flagship store on Michigan Avenue October 20, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The glass-sided store sits on shore of the Chicago River in the city's downtown. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc., speaks during the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. The forum, hosted during UN General Assembly week, brings leaders to work together, through on-the-record main stage discussions and private bilateral and multilateral meetings, to address the most pressing economic issues facing us today. Photographer: Misha Friedman/Bloomberg via Getty Images
CUPERTINO, CA - SEPTEMBER 12: Apple CEO Tim Cook (R) and Apple chief design officer Jonathan Ive (L) look at the new Apple iPhone X during an Apple special event at the Steve Jobs Theatre on the Apple Park campus on September 12, 2017 in Cupertino, California. Apple held their first special event at the new Apple Park campus where they announced the new iPhone 8, iPhone X and the Apple Watch Series 3. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during a media event at Apple's new headquarters where Apple is expected to announce a new iPhone and other products in Cupertino, California on September 12, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Josh Edelson (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
SUN VALLEY, ID - JULY 12: Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple, attends the second day of the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference, July 12, 2017 in Sun Valley, Idaho. Every July, some of the world's most wealthy and powerful businesspeople from the media, finance, technology and political spheres converge at the Sun Valley Resort for the exclusive weeklong conference. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JUNE 09: CEO of Apple Tim Cook looks on before a game between the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers at Fenway Park on June 9, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
CAMBRIDGE, MA - JUNE 9: Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers the commencement address during the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Commencement at Killian Court on the MIT campus in Cambridge, MA on Jun. 9, 2017. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JUNE 9: Apple CEO Tim Cook reacts before a game between the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers on June 9, 2017 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc., speaks during a Bloomberg Technology television interview at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California, U.S., on Monday, June 5, 2017. Cook�said the company has helped U.K. officials investigate terror attacks, while reiterating his dismay over U.S. plans to quit the Paris agreement on climate change. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 05: Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers the opening keynote address the 2017 Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) at the San Jose Convention Center on June 5, 2017 in San Jose, California. Apple CEO Tim Cook kicked off the five-day WWDC that runs through June 9. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Apple CEO Tim Cook looks on during a visit of the shopfitting company Dula that delivers tables for Apple stores worldwide in Vreden, western Germany, on February 7, 2017. / AFP / dpa / Bernd Thissen / Germany OUT (Photo credit should read BERND THISSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
CUPERTINO, CA - OCTOBER 27: Apple CEO Tim Cook smiles during a product launch event on October 27, 2016 in Cupertino, California. Apple Inc. unveiled the latest iterations of its MacBook Pro line of laptops and TV app. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
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Cook gave a keynote address on Sunday. “The theme of this conference — developing a digital economy for openness and shared benefits — is a vision we at Apple share,” Cook said, according to Bloomberg. “We are proud to have worked alongside many of our partners in China to help build a community that will join a common future in cyberspace."

Pichai didn't give a speech, but he did appear on a panel with Xiaomi founder Lei Jun. "Technology is giving opportunities at a global scale, driving interconnectedness and cooperation and I think it’s a big trend and I think it’s almost irreversible at this point," Pichai said.

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Google Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai attends a session of the fourth World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, December 3, 2017. REUTERS/Aly Song
Google's CEO Sundar Pichai speaks on stage during a conference tagged 'Google for Nigeria' in Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos, July 27, 2017. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye
Google Inc CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during a launch event in San Francisco, California, U.S. October 4, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks on stage during the annual Google I/O developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks on stage during the annual Google I/O developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Google CEO Sundar Pichai delivers his keynote address during the Google I/O 2016 developers conference in Mountain View, California, U.S. May 18, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Sundar Pichai, Senior Vice President for Products, delivers his keynote address during the Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco, California May 28, 2015. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president of products, speaks during a presentation at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona March 2, 2015. Ninety thousand executives, marketers and reporters gather in Barcelona this week for the telecom operators Mobile World Congress, the largest annual trade show for the global wireless industry. REUTERS/Albert Gea (SPAIN - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS TELECOMS)
Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Google Chrome, speaks during Google I/O Conference at Moscone Center in San Francisco, California June 28, 2012. REUTERS/Stephen Lam (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president of Android, Chrome and Apps, speaks about wearables during his keynote address at the Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco June 25, 2014. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Chrome at Google, discusses recent advancements and changes to Chrome during the keynote address at the Google I/O Developers Conference in the Moscone Center in San Francisco, California, May 11, 2011. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCI TECH BUSINESS)
WUZHEN, CHINA - DECEMBER 03: Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks during the 4th World Internet Conference on December 3, 2017 in Wuzhen, China. The 4th World Internet Conference - Wuzhen Summit themed with 'Developing digital economy for openness and shared benefits -- building a community of common future in cyberspace.' is held from Dec 3 to 5 in Wuzhen of Zhejiang. (Photo by Du Yang/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images)
WUZHEN, CHINA - DECEMBER 03: Google CEO Sundar Pichai attends the opening ceremony of the 4th World Internet Conference on December 3, 2017 in Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province of China. The 4th World Internet Conference - Wuzhen Summit themed with 'Developing digital economy for openness and shared benefits -- building a community of common future in cyberspace.' is held from Dec 3 to 5 in Wuzhen of Zhejiang. (Photo by VCG via Getty Images)
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks during the Google I/O Annual Developers Conference in Mountain View, California, U.S., on Wednesday, May 17, 2017. Google's artificial intelligence-based voice Assistant is on more than 100 million devices now, and the company is leveraging a longtime competitor to expand the technology to even more people.�Photographer: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - MAY 17: Google CEO Sundar Pichai delivers the keynote address at the Google I/O 2017 Conference at Shoreline Amphitheater on May 17, 2017 in Mountain View, California. The three-day conference will highlight innovations including Google Assistant. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
NEW DELHI, INDIA JANUARY 4: Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during Digital Unlocked Google event at Taj palace on January 4, 2017 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
KHARAGPUR, INDIA - JANUARY 5: Google CEO Sundar Pichai interacts with students at IIT Kharagpur campus on January 5, 2017 in Kharagpur, India. For Pichai, it was an emotional homecoming, his first visit to his alma mater since he graduated from IIT Kharagpur in 1993. (Photo by Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
NEW DELHI, INDIA JANUARY 4: Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during Digital Unlocked Google event at Taj palace on January 4, 2017 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
KHARAGPUR, INDIA - JANUARY 5: Google CEO Sundar Pichai interacts with students at IIT Kharagpur campus on January 5, 2017 in Kharagpur, India. For Pichai, it was an emotional homecoming, his first visit to his alma mater since he graduated from IIT Kharagpur in 1993. (Photo by Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks during the company's Cloud Next '17 event in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. The Cloud Next conference brings together industry experts to discuss the future of cloud computing. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Google Inc CEO, Sundar Pichai (C) talks to a group of woman known as 'Internet Sathis' who learn mobile internet from Google and then teach other villagers, in Gokulpur village some 140 kms west of Kolkata on January 5, 2017. / AFP / Chandan KHANNA (Photo credit should read CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)
CEO of Google Inc. Sundar Pichai looks on as he attends a meeting about partnering with small business in New Delhi on January 4, 2017. / AFP / Dominique Faget (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
Google Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai gestures as he addresses students during a forum at The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur in Kharagpur, some 120kms west of Kolkata on January 5, 2017. / AFP / Chandan KHANNA (Photo credit should read CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks during a news conference in New Delhi, India, on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017. Google expects to have a dedicated cloud region for India later this year, Pichai said. Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Google Inc CEO, Sundar Pichai (C) talks to a group of woman known as 'Internet Sathis' who learn mobile internet from Google and then teach other villagers, in Gokulpur village some 140 kms west of Kolkata on January 5, 2017. / AFP / Chandan KHANNA (Photo credit should read CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)
Google CEO Sundar Pichai during a visit to Argyle Primary School, in London, alongside Minister for Digital Policy Matt Hancock, as Google announced plans to bring VR technology to one million schoolchildren in the UK as part of a new learning initiative. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images)
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks during an event at Google's Kings Cross office in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. After being criticized for not paying its fair share of British tax, Alphabet Inc.s Google unit is trying to show its a good corporate citizen by offering five hours of free digital skills training to all U.K. residents. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks during an event at Google's Kings Cross office in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. After being criticized for not paying its fair share of British tax, Alphabet Inc.s Google unit is trying to show its a good corporate citizen by offering five hours of free digital skills training to all U.K. residents. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., pauses during an event at Google's Kings Cross office in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. After being criticized for not paying its fair share of British tax, Alphabet Inc.s Google unit is trying to show its a good corporate citizen by offering five hours of free digital skills training to all U.K. residents. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., listens to a speaker during an event at Google's Kings Cross office in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. After being criticized for not paying its fair share of British tax, Alphabet Inc.s Google unit is trying to show its a good corporate citizen by offering five hours of free digital skills training to all U.K. residents. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Although the two star CEOs reportedly did not make remarks that touched directly on contentious policy issues, such as Apple's decision to pull VPN apps from its App Store under Chinese government pressure, or the fact that Google does not operate its services in mainland China, their appearance at the fourth annual conference lends legitimacy to the controversial event. 

At the conference, a top communist party official called for tight control of the internet while Cook was in the audience, according to The New York Times.   

One opinion written after Cook's speech said that he "kissed the ring." Apple registered $9.8 billion in sales in China for the most recent quarter that figures are available, just under 20% of Apple's overall revenue. 

Questions from Congress

The sensitivity of the World Internet Conference is illustrated by a question posed to Apple and Cook by senators Ted Cruz and Patrick Leahy earlier this year. 

The Senators pointedly asked:

"Since 2014, the Chinese government has held a World Internet Conference. Charles Smith, the co-founder of the non-profit censorship monitoring website GreatFire, described foreign guests of the Conference as 'complicit actors in the Chinese censorship regime and are lending legitimacy to Lu Wei, the Cyberspace Administration of China and their heavy-handed approach to Internet governance. They are, in effect, helping to put all Chinese who stand for their constitutional right to free speech behind bars.' What role, if any, has Apple or its employees had with respect to the World Internet Conference in China? Does Apple support the conference?"

Apple's Vice President for Public Policy, Cynthia Hogan, replied in a November 21 letter

"Apple is not a financial sponsor of the conference. Apple has participated in the World Internet Conference in the past, and Apple employees, including our CEO, will participate in the future. We are convinced that continued engagement is the surest way to effect change. We believe in the free flow of information everywhere, and we remain committed to this ongoing effort in all countries in which we operate, across a complicated world."

Less than three weeks later, Cook would be the surprise keynote speaker at the World Internet Conference's opening ceremony. 

Read Apple's entire response, which also touches on Chinese censorship of certain apps that can be used to access websites and services that are banned in China: 

 

 

 

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