About those 674 apps that Apple censored in China

Apple’s written response to questions posed by Senators Leahy and Cruz marks the first time that Apple has been transparent regarding their censorship practices in China. When Apple started to comply with Chinese government censorship demands, they signalled to the world that freedom of speech is not one of the company’s values. Apple argues otherwise, frequently repeating that the company must adhere to local laws in all markets where they operate. With this response, Apple both simplifies what is a complicated matter and sets a dangerous precedent.

In their letter, Apple again repeats the mantra that “engagement will help the opening up of China”. How long has Apple been operating in China? Since they formally entered the market in 2008, Apple has been using this same statement and the situation has only gotten worse. Can Apple honestly say that, when it comes to freedom of access to information, that things have improved during their decade of operations in China?

[Apple has also long stated that they wish to improve the working conditions of those in China who manufacture their products. In 2011, it was noted that “Apple's success has been built literally on the backs of Chinese workers, many of them children…”. Apple is still looking into these improvements.]

Apple’s letter makes it clear that censorship became much harder to defeat in 2017. Apple removed 674 VPN apps from the China App Store this year alone. Kudos to Apple for providing transparency on VPN censorship in China and kudos to the two senators whose letter forced this admission. But Apple is providing no transparency on the other apps that the company is censoring in China. Sometime in October, 2017, Apple removed Skype from the China App Store. In late 2016, Apple removed the Chinese New York Times from the App Store.

Apple argues that they are only following the letter of the law while operating in China. “Adhering to local laws” does not equal a values-based decision. On the contrary, it is the default decision of a company without values. Turned on it’s head, Apple could equally justify its lack of censorship in the US market by blaming US laws that protect freedom of speech. The degree of freedom of speech that Apple stands for is the exact legal minimum imposed on it by laws around the world. The company itself does nothing to defend freedom of speech, or speak up when these freedoms are violated.

Because of the stature of Apple (economically, not morally, nor ethically), the decisions that Tim Cook makes affect many other companies. If Apple agrees to censorship, then the pressure builds on other phone manufacturers to agree to censor. But the Chinese authorities then use Apple as an example for other companies in other sectors. Foreign and domestic news media organizations, academia, content-driven websites, educational institutions and book publishers are all told to follow Apple’s example, leaving them with little choice but to complicity submit to self-censorship.

If all companies followed Apple’s example of taking censorship orders from Beijing, any attempts by Chinese to bypass this censorship would be made impossible. This is because information that is censored inside the Great Firewall of China survives outside the wall thanks to the support, or at least tolerance, of internet companies outside of China. If these companies all acted like Apple, there would be no more circumvention, no more uncensored Chinese information, anywhere on the global internet.

Take greatfire.org as an example. The site is blocked by the great firewall (GFW). The only way to access this content inside the GFW is to use a circumvention tool. These tools - whether commercial or free - are themselves operated by organizations that also have to balance their need to comply with laws around the world and their own sets of values. The difference is that, so far, they come to a different conclusion than Apple does. They decide that, even though a user is located in mainland China, and even though that user wants to access content which is blocked in China, the user should be allowed to do so, so they help that user to get access. Their belief in the value of freedom of access to information overrides their need to adhere to censorship laws around the world. This is what believing in a value means.

Circumvention tools themselves depend on a range of other internet service operators including web hosting providers, content delivery networks and domain registrars. If these companies all decided, like Apple, to comply with Chinese censorship demands, operating a circumvention tool that works in China would be impossible.

In other words, if other companies follow Apple’s example, circumventing censorship in mainland China becomes an impossibility. But it will not stop there. The Chinese Communist Party does not aim to just control access inside the borders of mainland China. Apple has in fact already helped the authorities expand control of its citizens to a worldwide level. With the way that Apple’s system is designed, if a user is registered as a Chinese user with a Chinese credit card, then when that user travels outside of China, they are still subject to the same information controls. Even though that user may have travelled to, say, the US, that user will still not be able to install a VPN app on their phone.

In principle, this is no different than Apple restricting Chinese users from accessing websites blocked in China when travelling. If Apple does indeed start doing this, we should be outraged, but not surprised, as the moral boundary has already been crossed.

If other companies implement the same policies, it could mean, for example, that a Chinese person currently in the US would not be able to watch a movie on Netflix, if that movie is banned in China. It could mean that a Chinese person would not be able to buy a book on Amazon, if that book were banned in China. It could mean that Facebook would implement keyword-based censorship for Chinese users, when they are accessing Facebook while physically in the US. In short, it could mean that while Chinese people could travel outside of China, the complicit cooperation of companies around the world with the Chinese authorities would ensure that these globetrotters would never escape the censorship controls imposed by their government.

It is also important to note that by the letter of the law, Apple is in fact helping to break the laws of China. Article 35 of The Constitution of The People's Republic of China cleary states that "citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration".

Apple is not adhering to local laws when it removes apps from the China App Store. They are in essence just greasing the palms of the authorities with what they believe is a goodwill gesture - 674 times! What Apple is coming to understand with each passing day is that once the palms are greased, there is a never-ending line of outstretched hands with dry, flaky skin, all waiting for their handout. The only thing that will prevent Apple from complicity meeting every demand of every Chinese official is the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Today Apple is removing VPN apps from the App Store. Tomorrow Apple will be ensuring that an umbrella of censorship hangs over every Chinese, in any part of world. All in the name of “adhering to local laws wherever they do business”.

The Economist recently declared China’s president Xi Jinping “the world’s most powerful leader”. The Chinese Communist Party is using its growing power to change the state of the internet and freedom of speech on a global level. This demands that we all ask ourselves what we believe in. The future of freedom of speech requires people and organizations braver and more sincere than Tim Cook and Apple.

Based on Apple’s response, we have some additional questions for Apple. We also note that David Kaye, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, also posed questions for Apple in August, 2017. David’s questions are incorporated and noted in the list of questions below along with unanswered questions from the original letter to Apple. We have also posed new questions based on Apple’s latest response.

1. Which trade associations did Apple join in providing comments to the Chinese authorities on the China Cybersecurity Law? What were Apple’s contributions to these joint efforts? (It is also worth reading David Kaye’s formal comments regarding the Cybersecurity Law.)

2. Which trade associations did Apple join in providing comments to the Chinese authorities on the Notice on Regulating Business Behavior in the Cloud Services Market? What were Apple’s contributions to these joint efforts? What concerns did Apple share about the provisions covering VPN services? What concerns did Apple share about the adverse impact these provisions would have on the free flow of data in China?

3. Of the 674 VPN apps that Apple removed from the China App Store, were all 674 VPNs listed on the order from the Chinese authorities? If not, did the authorities ask for more or less VPNs to be removed from the App Store? If more or less, what was Apple’s rationale for removing / not removing the additional VPNs from the China App Store?

4. [From David Kaye]: Did Apple consider options other than application removal to protect the rights of Chinese consumers? For example, did Apple seek to restrict the number or types of Apps that were taken down?

5. Apple removed 674 VPN apps from the China App Store this year. Was there one request or multiple requests from the Chinese authorities? In which month/months was/were the request/requests received?

6. [From David Kaye]: In making legal assessments, if any, did Apple take into account China’s obligations under international human rights law? In making your assessment about proceeding with the takedown from the App Store, did Apple take into account international instruments such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights or the Global Network Initiative’s Principles on Freedom of Expression?

7. [From David Kaye]: Did Apple provide Chinese customers with information about what Apps were taken down, and the reasons for such removals?

8. While Apple states that it has made its views on VPN apps clear to the Chinese authorities, has Apple made any formal request with the Chinese authorities to reintroduce VPN apps to the China App Store?

9. Can Apple confirm that the hundreds of VPN apps that remain in the China App Store all meet with the approval of the Chinese authorities?

10. How many other apps has Apple removed from the China App Store since the China App Store first opened? How many requests has Apple received from the Chinese authorities to remove apps? How many times has Apple refused to remove apps from the China App Store? What number of apps were protected by these refusals?

11. [From David Kaye]:  How does Apple make such decisions about whether to restrict App Store content in the face of government requests such as the instant one? Apart from your General Counsel, which other divisions participate in such decision-making?

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Tue, May 23, 2017

Is China establishing cyber sovereignty in the United States?

Last week Twitter came under attack from a DDoS attack orchestrated by the Chinese authorities. While such attacks are not uncommon for websites like Twitter, this one proved unusual. While the Chinese authorities use the Great Firewall to block harmful content from reaching its citizens, it now uses DDoS attacks to take down content that appears on websites beyond its borders. For the Chinese authorities, it is not simply good enough to “protect” the interests of Chinese citizens at home - in their view of cyber sovereignty, any content that might harm China’s interests must be removed, regardless of where the website is located.

And so last week the Chinese authorities determined that Twitter was the target. In particular, the authorities targeted the Twitter account for Guo Wengui (https://twitter.com/KwokMiles), the rebel billionaire who is slowly leaking information about corrupt Chinese government officials via his Twitter account and through his YouTube videos. Guo appeared to ramp up his whistle-blowing efforts last week and the Chinese authorities, in turn, ramped up theirs.

via https://twitter.com/KwokMiles/status/863689935798374401

Mon, Dec 12, 2016

China is the obstacle to Google’s plan to end internet censorship

It’s been three years since Eric Schmidt proclaimed that Google would chart a course to ending online censorship within ten years. Now is a great time to check on Google’s progress, reassess the landscape, benchmark Google’s efforts against others who share the same goal, postulate on the China strategy and offer suggestions on how they might effectively move forward.

flowers on google china plaque

Flowers left outside Google China’s headquarters after its announcement it might leave the country in 2010. Photo: Wikicommons.

What has Google accomplished since November 2013?

The first thing they have accomplished is an entire rebranding of both Google (now Alphabet) and Google Ideas (now Jigsaw). Throughout this blog post, reference is made to both new and old company names.

Google has started to develop two main tools which they believe can help in the fight against censorship. Jigsaw’s DDoS protection service, Project Shield, is effectively preventing censorship-inspired DDoS attacks and recently helped to repel an attack on Brian Krebs’ blog. The service is similar to other anti-DDoS services developed by internet freedom champions and for-profit services like Cloudflare.

Thu, Nov 24, 2016

Facebook: Please, not like this

Facebook is considering launching a censorship tool that would enable the world’s biggest social network to “enter” the China market. Sadly, nobody will be surprised by anything that Mark Zuckerberg decides to do in order to enter the China market. With such low expectations, Facebook is poised to usurp Apple as China’s favorite foreign intelligence gathering partner. If the company launches in China using this strategy they will also successfully erase any bargaining power that other media organizations may hold with the Chinese authorities.

Tue, Jul 05, 2016

GreatFire.org 现在开始测试VPN在中国的速度和稳定性

在中国有一个普遍观念,如果你有一个可以使用的VPN,那么你应该保持沉默。就信息自由而言,这种观念的问题在于获取知识竟成了一种秘密。今天,我们推出一个项目,希望能够摧毁这种模型。

我们最新的网站,翻墙中心,目的在于实时提供那些能够在中国使用的翻墙方案的信息和数据。在2011年以来我们就已经开始收集在中国被屏蔽的网站,现在我们也将增加那些可用的VPN和其他翻墙工具。

我们发布翻墙中心主要有四个目的。

我们的首要目标是助长使用翻墙工具的国人的数量。通过分享我们这些工具的信息和数据,我们希望对更广泛的受众展示那些工具时可以使用的。

我们的第二个目标是通过带来工具性能的透明化来提升中国用户的翻墙体验。我们将会测试工具的速度(流行网站的加载速度)和稳定性(流行网站加载成功的程度)。

我们开发速度测试的目的是要真实反映用户的体验。当用户在网站测速时,浏览器在后台会从10个世界上最流行的网站上下载一些资源文件。根据Alexa排名,这些网站分别是Google, Facebook, YouTube, Baidu, Amazon, Yahoo, Wikipedia, QQ, Twitter and Microsoft Live。速度的结果是简单的计算下载文件文件的大小和下载所需的时间。我们同样也会验证下载的文件是否完整。如果文件的内容是错误的或者在40秒内无法完成下载,我们会标记为失败。这个数据被我们用来生成另一个重要指标-稳定性。

其他的速度测试工具仅仅是通过发送数据到它们自己的服务器来测量上传和下载的速度。这种数据无法反应用户的体验,因为正常的浏览器通常会频繁的发送一系列的请求(而不是上传或下载一个大文件)到许多的服务器,而不止是一个。

我们的第二个指标 - 稳定性 - 是其他的服务通常不会测试的。一个健康的互联网连接应该达到100%的稳定性,除非有人在测试中把网线拔了。但是在中国使用翻墙工具却不是这样。任何时候连接都有可能变得不稳定或十分缓慢。根据请求的大小,最终的地点和代理的方式,一些请求有可能会失败。比较服务的稳定性要比比较速度更加重要。

你可以测试任意的翻墙工具,列表之外的也可以。中国的VPN用户也可以测试他们的工具,测试结果也会添加到数据库中。这些数据都将会对所有人开放。实时的在中国测试是非常重要的,因为VPN随时都可能被封锁或解封。我们欢迎任何的关于测试过程的反馈。有技术能力的用户也可以通过审查我们的javascript代码来获悉我们的测试是如何工作的。

我们郑重的邀请翻墙工具的开发者们向我们提供测试过程的反馈。我们的第三个目标是帮助这些开发人员改进他们的产品,让更多的选择适用于中国的顾客。此外,越多的工具可以工作,就意味着中国当局对翻墙的打击就会越难。

中国的用户都知道,在过去的18个月中当局加紧了对翻墙工具的攻击。而翻墙中心将会吹响反击的号角。反其道而行之,让这不再成为秘密。我们要鼓励人们分享翻墙工具可以工作的信息。

我们的第四个目标就是要为GreatFire.org创造收益。目前GreatFire仍然依靠世界各地的热心人士和组织的捐款。我们希望减少对这些机构的依赖,并探寻GreatFire.org自给自足的道路。用户只需到翻墙中心就能购买任意一款我们目前在测试的付费工具。GreatFire将作为这些工具在中国的经销商,因此VPN供应商会给予我们每个零售的一部分。用户也不必在中国购买这些翻墙服务。

Sat, May 07, 2016

The New York Times vs. The Chinese Authorities

Could the New York Times be setting the best path forward for news organizations in China?
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