Apple Censoring Tibetan Information in China

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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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.

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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

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.

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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.
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