26 May 2021

The New York Times: “Censorship, Surveillance and Profits: A Hard Bargain for Apple in China”

The entrance to Apple’s new data center in Guiyang, China
The entrance to Apple’s new data center, which the company hoped to complete next month. Keith Bradsher/The New York Times

Behind the scenes, Apple has constructed a bureaucracy that has become a powerful tool in China’s vast censorship operation. It proactively censors its Chinese App Store, relying on software and employees to flag and block apps that Apple managers worry could run afoul of Chinese officials, according to interviews and court documents.

A Times analysis found that tens of thousands of apps have disappeared from Apple’s Chinese App Store over the past several years, more than previously known, including foreign news outlets, gay dating services and encrypted messaging apps. It also blocked tools for organizing pro-democracy protests and skirting internet restrictions, as well as apps about the Dalai Lama.

U.S. law has long prohibited American companies from turning over data to Chinese law enforcement. But Apple and the Chinese government have made an unusual arrangement to get around American laws.

In China, Apple has ceded legal ownership of its customers’ data to Guizhou-Cloud Big Data, or GCBD, a company owned by the government of Guizhou Province, whose capital is Guiyang. Apple recently required its Chinese customers to accept new iCloud terms and conditions that list GCBD as the service provider and Apple as “an additional party”. Apple told customers the change was to improve iCloud services in China mainland and comply with Chinese regulations.

Jack Nicas, Raymond Zhong & Daisuke Wakabayashi

Apple likes to regularly repeat in their press releases how it complies with local legislation – until the company can find a convenient loophole to bypass it, as it has done numerous times to evade taxes. Most of these details have been reported for years, from internal self-censorship of any Chinese criticism – going as far as firing an employee because he failed to remove an AppStore app – to public silence regarding Chinese surveillance and human rights abuses.

My major issue with Apple is their seemingly boundless hypocrisy: challenging the US government on encryption, but ceding the fight in China with not so much as a comment; firing employees for alleged sexism while ignoring the behavior in one of its board members; Tim Cook as an openly gay man presiding over a company that blocks gay dating services; presenting themselves as a privacy promoter in the West while collaborating with the Chinese government in its censorship and surveillance operations; complaining about tax bills while enjoying state subsidies for their manufacturing and possibly relying on forced labor in China. But I guess all is easily forgiven because people can seamlessly chat on iMessage.

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