Apple Censoring Tibetan Information in China

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Apple has a long history of censorship when it comes to information about Tibet. In 2009, it was revealed that several apps related to the Dalai Lama were not available in the China App Store. The developers of these apps were not notified that their apps were removed. When confronted with these instances of censorship, an Apple spokesperson simply said that the company “continues to comply with local laws”.

In December, 2017, at a conference in China, when asked about working with the Chinese authorities to censor the Apple App Store, Tim Cook proclaimed:

"Your choice is: do you participate, or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be. And my own view very strongly is you show up and you participate, you get in the arena because nothing ever changes from the sideline."

In the ten years since Apple was first criticized for working with the Chinese authorities to silence already marginalized voices, what has changed? Apple continues to strictly follow the censorship orders of the Chinese authorities. When does Tim Cook expect that his company will help to bring about positive change in China?

Based on data generated from https://applecensorship.com, Apple has now censored 29 popular Tibetan mobile applications in the China App Store. Tibetan-themed apps dealing with news, religious study, tourism, and even games are being censored by Apple. A full list of the censored apps appear below.

“Apple’s leadership hides behind the excuse that they censor apps to comply with vague ‘Chinese local laws’, but their actions lack any measure of transparency. By removing Tibetan and numerous other apps from the China App Store, Apple is hindering Tibetans’ ability to access information and freely express themselves, a basic human right under International law,” said Dorjee Phuntsok, Response Coordinator for TibCERT (Tibetan Computer Emergency Readiness Team), who conducted the analysis of the blocked Tibetan apps in collaboration with GreatFire.

In January, 2019 GreatFire launched applecensorship.com. At that time, GreatFire co-founder Martin Johnson noted: “Apple does not share information about App Store censorship in their transparency report - this project forces the transparency. Tim Cook can say whatever he wants about what Apple is or is not doing in China, but applecensorship.com provides the raw data needed to actually see how Apple practices censorship”.

Analysis of the iOS apps censored by Apple in China

There are many apps either made by Tibetans or for Tibetans and Apple is censoring many of these apps in the China App Store. It is important to understand how and why certain apps are blocked and the rationale behind these decisions. To understand this, TibCERT (Tibetan Emergency Readiness Team) conducted an analysis of Tibetan apps being censored in the Chinese App Store. The research was conducted using keywords to search for Tibetan apps and then using the app censorship platform provided by GreatFire.

TibCERT analyzed 119, Tibetan-themed, iOS apps. The apps listed below were found when searching the Apple App Store using keywords such as ‘Tibet’, ‘Tibetans’, ‘Dalai Lama’, ‘Buddhism’, ‘bhoe’, and ‘Tibetan Buddhism’. The apps have been categorized into five general categories: “Religious or Cultural”, “Media/Political”, “Entertainment”, “Utilities”, and “Educational”.

All 119 apps were tested on https://applecensorship.com/ to see if they are blocked/censored in China. Of the 119 apps, it has been determined that 29 iOS apps have been censored in China. Among the censored apps, 7 are “Religious or Cultural” in nature and 5 are “Media/Political”.

By looking at which apps have been censored, it is possible to identify some of the censorship criteria. If the name of the app contains the Dalai Lama’s name then the app is likely to be censored. All media apps are censored. The only game that has been censored prominently features the Tibetan National Flag in its logo.

Given Apple’s lack of transparency about which apps it censors, many developers may be unaware that their app is blocked from the China App Store. However, one Tibetan App developer, who wishes to remain anonymous, reported: “I am not allowed to publish apps when I select China. A message appears saying that I have violated the cyber rules of the country (China)”. This vague message offers no explanation for how the developer’s app violates cyber rules, and what those rules are, and offers no option for redress. Given the overall lack of transparency about its censorship policies, it is unclear how many apps Apple prevents from being published in the first place.

Some Tibetan Buddhist-themed apps are censored while others are not, and the reasons for these discrepancies are unclear. TibCERT continues to conduct more analysis to understand why certain apps are available and why certain apps are banned. In some cases, apps may be available in the China App Store (Facebook, for example), but the websites that they rely on to feed information to the apps are blocked in China, rendering the apps useless. The methodology that TibCERT used to find Tibetan apps was through keyword search. However, this methodology has its own limitations and TibCERT is continuing to explore other ways to expand its research in understanding how Apple censors apps related to Tibet.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this blog post, sent as an email newsletter (“Apple Censoring Tibetan Information in China”) on May 31, 2019, incorrectly noted that the VOA Tibetan app was available in Apple’s China app store. VOA Tibetan is not available in the China app store and the VOA Tibetan website is blocked in China.

Tibetan Apps that are being censored by Apple:

Bangchen

BuddhaApps

Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama Quotes

Dharamsala Tourism Guide

Drikung Kagyu Today

Gangjong Tsegzhod Chenmo

GCMGC

Gyalwa Rinpoche

Gyalwa Rinpoche's Books

Kirsan Buddhist Messenger

PotRunner

Radio Free Asia (RFA)

Teachings of His Holiness the Gyalwa Rinpoche

Teachings of Tibetan Buddhism

Tenzin Gyatso Daily Surprise

The Drikung Kagyu Today

Tibet eRadio

Tibet Times

Tibet Travel Phrase

Tibet.net

Tibetan Book of the Dead

Tibetan Buddhism - Pilgrimage to Tibet

Tibetan News

TibetOnline TV

uTalk Classic Learn Tibetan

VOA Tibetan

Voice of Tibet

藏传佛教·课颂集

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Mon, Aug 03, 2020

Announcing the Release of GreatFire Appmaker

GreatFire (https://en.greatfire.org/), a China-focused censorship monitoring organization, is proud to announce that we have developed and released a new anti-censorship tool that will enable any blocked media outlet, blogger, human rights group, or civil society organization to evade censors and get their content onto the phones of millions of readers and supporters in China and other countries that censor the Internet.

GreatFire has built an Android mobile app creator, called “GreatFire AppMaker”, that can be used by organizations to unblock their content for users in China and other countries. Organizations can visit a website (https://appmaker.greatfire.org/) which will compile an app that is branded with the organization’s own logo and will feature their own, formerly blocked content. The app will also contain a special, censorship-circumventing web browser so that users can access the uncensored World Wide Web. The apps will use multiple strategies, including machine learning, to evade advanced censorship tactics employed by the Chinese authorities.  This project will work equally well in other countries that have China-like censorship restrictions. For both organizations and end users, the apps will be free, fast, and extremely easy to use.

This project was inspired by China-based GreatFire’s first-hand experience with our own FreeBrowser app (https://freebrowser.org/en) and desire to help small NGOs who may not have the in-house expertise to circumvent Chinese censorship. GreatFire’s anti-censorship tools have worked in China when others do not. FreeBrowser directs Chinese internet users to normally censored stories from the app’s start page (http://manyvoices.news/).

Fri, Jul 24, 2020

Apple, anticompetition, and censorship

On July 20, 2020, GreatFire wrote to all 13 members of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, requesting a thorough examination into Apple’s practice of censorship of its App Store, and an investigation into how the company collaborates with the Chinese authorities to maintain its unique position as one of the few foreign tech companies operating profitably in the Chinese digital market.  

This letter was sent a week before Apple CEO TIm Cook will be called for questioning in front of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. The CEOs of Amazon, Google and Facebook will also be questioned on July 27, as part of the Committee’s ongoing investigation into competition in the digital marketplace.

This hearing offers an opportunity to detail to the Subcommittee how Apple uses its closed operating ecosystem to not only abuse its market position but also to deprive certain users, most notably those in China, of their right to download and use apps related to privacy, secure communication, and censorship circumvention.

We hope that U.S. House representatives agree with our view that Apple should not be allowed to do elsewhere what would be considered as unacceptable in the U.S. Chinese citizens are not second class citizens. Private companies such as Apple compromise themselves and their self-proclaimed values of freedom and privacy when they collaborate with the Chinese government and its censors.

Thu, Jun 06, 2019

Report Shines Spotlight on Apple’s Censorship Practices in China

The newest Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index makes recommendations on what companies and governments need to do in order to improve the protection of internet users’ human rights around the world. Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) works to promote freedom of expression and privacy on the internet by creating global standards and incentives for companies to respect and protect users’ rights.

In their 2019 Accountability Index, RDR looks at the policies of 24 of the world’s most important internet companies in respect to freedom of expression and privacy and highlights the companies that have made improvements and those companies that need to do more. RDR notes that:

Insufficient transparency makes it easier for private parties, governments, and companies themselves to abuse their power over online speech and avoid accountability.

In particular, the report highlights how Apple has abused their power over online speech, and notes instances of this in China. According to the report, Apple has not disclosed data around the content that it removes from its App Store when faced with requests from the government authorities.

While [Apple] disclosed data about government requests to restrict accounts, it disclosed no data about content removal requests, such as requests to remove apps from its App Store. Apple revealed little about policies and practices affecting freedom of expression, scoring below all other U.S. companies in this category.

The report makes intelligent and sensible recommendations for governments. However, the recommendations also highlight how difficult it is to have these discussions with governments like China’s.

Thu, Nov 30, 2017

About those 674 apps that Apple censored in China

Apple opened the door on its censorship practices in China - but just a crack.

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

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