Jeffrey Knockel and Lotus Ruan for for The Citizen Lab analyzed Apple’s filtering of product engravings in six regions, discovering 1,105 keyword filtering rules used to moderate their content. The researchers found that part of Apple’s mainland China political censorship bleeds into both Hong Kong and Taiwan. Much of this censorship exceeds Apple’s legal obligations in Hong Kong, and they are aware of no legal justification for the political censorship of content in Taiwan.
Across all six regions that were analyzed, the researchers found that Apple’s content moderation practices pertaining to derogatory, racist, or sexual content are inconsistently applied and that Apple’s public-facing documents failed to explain how it derives their keyword lists.
Within mainland China, the researchers found that Apple censors political content including broad references to Chinese leadership and China’s political system, names of dissidents and independent news organizations, and general terms relating to religions, democracy, and human rights.
We present evidence that Apple does not fully understand what content they censor and that, rather than each censored keyword being born of careful consideration, many seem to have been thoughtlessly reappropriated from other sources. In one case, Apple censored ten Chinese names surnamed Zhang with generally unclear significance. The names appear to have been copied from a list we found also used to censor products from a Chinese company…
Apple has enjoyed much success in China in recent years. Sales in the Greater China region hit a record high in its December quarter in 2020. The mainland Chinese market makes up nearly a fifth of Apple’s total revenue. Additionally, Apple assembles almost all of its products in China. Apple’s heavy dependence on the mainland Chinese market and manufacturing, however, has given rise to growing concerns over the leverage that China holds over Apple and criticism of how Apple proactively implements censorship to please the Chinese government in order for Apple to advance its commercial interests in the region. Moreover, Apple’s proactive measures are often found implemented beyond mainland China.
In July 2017, Apple purged its Chinese App Store of major VPN apps, tools that might be used to circumvent China’s national censorship firewall. By May 2021, Apple had reportedly taken down tens of thousands of apps from its Chinese App Store, including foreign news outlets, gay dating services, and encrypted messaging apps, as well as an app that allows protesters to track the police from its Hong Kong App Store. According to Apple’s own transparency reports, the company has removed nearly 1,000 apps in mainland China over the past few years as per government requests. However, observers note that Apple is often doing more than just the bare minimum to comply with China’s laws and regulations, as it has “built a system that is designed to proactively take down apps — without direct orders from the Chinese government — that Apple has deemed off limits in China, or that Apple believes will upset Chinese officials.” Advocacy groups argue that Apple’s app censorship exceeds that required by Chinese law and that Apple’s real concern is to not “offend the Chinese government.”
Outside of China, Apple also faced criticism from other civil society groups for censoring LGBTQ+ content in its App Store in over 150 countries, which is in sharp contrast to the company’s pro-LGBTQ+ stance in the United States…
In addition to its App Store, Apple politically censors other aspects of its platform as well. For instance, in 2019, Apple Music removed a number of Hong Kong originating songs and artists from its mainland Chinese streaming service allegedly for political reasons. Later the same year, Apple was found to have censored the Taiwan flag emoji for users that have their iOS region set to Hong Kong or Macau. Apple had only previously applied such censorship to users who had set their iOS region to mainland China.
MacDailyNews Take: There’s tons more in the sadly unsurprising full report.
Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. — Potter Stewart