Apple News Runs Afoul of China’s Great Firewall

| Editorial

Apple may be running afoul of China's penchant for censorship, as the company recently deactivated its new Apple News app inside the borders. Technically, Apple News hasn't launched inside China in the first place, but users who downloaded the app outside the country have been reporting that it doesn't work once they cross the Great Firewall of China.

Apple's iPhone in China

It's a tricky situation for every Western tech company. When censorship was demanded by the totalitarian government of China, Yahoo! and Microsoft's Bing both chose to comply with local laws and censor content on their services. Google, on the other hand, shut down its Chinese search engine and redirected customers to the Hong Kong version which isn't subject to the same rules.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that Apple has chosen a similar path—for now—choosing to deactivate the app rather than censor. As Apple hasn't commented on the topic yet, it remains to be seen if Apple will introduce censored content for Apple News in the future.

But, it gets a little trickier, still. It was a post on Reddit that alerted The Times to this development. Reddit member Larry Salibra posted that Apple's deactivation not only blocks new content from being accessed inside the Great Firewall, it also effectively blocks content downloaded to his device outside of China's controls.

From that post, "They’re censoring news content that I downloaded and stored on my device purchased in the USA, before I even enter China just because my phone happens to connect to a Chinese signal floating over the border.”

A lot of folks understandably get tense when tech companies touch an app or content already downloaded to their devices, and it frankly makes Apple's interim approach to Apple News in China far less than perfect.

The question is what can Apple do? Submit to censorship and Apple is kowtowing to a repressive regime bent on denying information to its people. If Apple doesn't, on the other hand, the company locks itself out of the world's largest market.

What would you do?

There's another element here, too. China is using the Great Firewall as a form of commercial protectionism. By forcing Western companies to choose sides on this issue, the country fosters the growth and development of home grown competitors. Not only does that benefit China economically, it ensures that more big players in the Chinese market are part and parcel of the censorship system.

It's a(n un)virtuous circle, and it's devilishly clever.

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Gary Matheis

[Deleted] CHINA . . Time to take back our country . . . Quit buying from Walmart . . . .

Lee Dronick

Too bad that the firewall doesn’t stop their hackers, or maybe they are going through a special gate.



You are right to pose the question, ‘What would you do?’.

Dealing with the issue of information access in China, commingled as it is with the offering of Apple’s iOS devices, is not a simple matter; nor is the question of adhering to Apple’s core principles of consumer privacy in the context of a Western concept of freedom of information divorced from the issue of social responsibility writ large, particularly to consumers, in any market, by a global company like Apple.

Constructive engagement by the major tech companies, whilst exemplifying a different model than the one preferred by a secretive, repressive, totalitarian government (take your pick, there’s plenty to choose from) has culturally transformative impacts far beyond mere consumer purchasing patterns, but has been credited with enabling revolutions no less significant than the Arab Spring and the distribution of video evidence that has prompted needed social discourse in the West. The impact is far-reaching, and the withholding or availability of technology has rightly been set by a number of international organisations in the context of equality, justice and human rights.

Whatever the motive in Cupertino, Mountain View, Seattle, Menlo Park or elsewhere, wholesale withdrawal from these difficult markets, and an unwillingness to find work-arounds or solutions that do not compromise human rights or exacerbate inequalities but reduces them, even if they do not eliminate them entirely, would be viewed by ordinary citizens in these emerging markets as abandonment to the caprices of these regimes, indifference by the global community to their plight, and to acts of desperation that would affect communities abroad. The evidence from the daily news could not be plainer.

Whether we like it or not, the tech revolution is more than commercial and transcends the tech itself to the transformation of culture and the knitting of disparate communities into a global village. The money, as Apple have said more than once, is secondary, when that.

In any case, these tech giants in particular, with their combined efforts can, and I believe will, ultimately succeed in extending not only freedom of information, but of peoples, in the long run.

And lest we forget, Apple is a grand master of the long game.

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