China

Apple exports PRC censorship to Hong Kong and Taiwan, report says

Researchers say the U.S. tech giant copies censored word lists from Chinese sources to populate its own list of forbidden terms.

A guard standing outside an Apple store.

Citizen Lab researchers describe Apple's engraving censorship in Greater China as "thoughtless, non-transparent and expansive."

Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images

A new investigation into Apple's censorship of terms used to create product engravings shows that the multinational has not only broadly censored political speech in mainland China, but has partially applied its China censored keyword lists — "thoughtlessly reappropriated" from Chinese sources — to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The report, published Wednesday by The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, a research lab studying digital threats to civil society, discovered Apple's 1,105 censored keywords were applied "inconsistently" across six regions in Apple's free engraving service, which allows users to put custom names or messages on products like Airpods. (Beijing delegates the burden of censorship to private companies.)

Of the 1,105 blocked keywords Citizen Lab researchers identified, most are applied in the Greater China region, Apple's third-largest market by revenue. About 95% of all the censored terms (1,045) are applied in the mainland China market, followed by Hong Kong (542) and then Taiwan (397), the report says. Apple censors almost as much political speech in mainland China as social speech — content referencing explicit sexual content, illicit goods and services and vulgarity — which is the most commonly filtered content across regions. And because political censorship from the PRC has seeped into Hong Kong and Taiwan, Apple users in these two regions also experience political censorship when they try to engrave words.

In mainland China, researchers found that about 43% of all keywords censored by Apple's engraving service refer to China's political system, the Communist Party, senior government and Party leaders and dissidents. Apple applies 174 of those 458 keywords in the Hong Kong market as well, and 29 in Taiwan. For example, the traditional Chinese phrase 新聞自由, meaning freedom of the press, is censored in China and Hong Kong. Engravings referencing Mao Zedong (Chairman Mao, 毛主席) and Xi Jinping (paramount leader, 最高領導人) are filtered in all three regions, both in simplified and complex script.

According to The Citizen Lab, Apple's public-facing documents "failed to explain how it determines the keyword lists" and the company's censorship in mainland China "may have exceeded" its legal obligations in the market. Much of Apple's censorship in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China on which Beijing has significantly tightened its grip, is not required by local laws and regulations. And in Taiwan, a self-governing island, Apple has no legal obligations to perform political censorship.

Researchers say there are two possible reasons why Apple applies its mainland China censorship in Hong Kong and Taiwan. "One is that this is, in fact, intentional behavior. In which case, it does speak to [how much] they want to appease the Chinese government," Jeffrey Knockel, co-author of the report and a research associate at The Citizen Lab, told Protocol. "But another possibility, too, is that it's just negligence." In a letter to The Citizen Lab, which Apple shared with Protocol, Chief Privacy Officer Jane Horvath wrote that Apple tries to not allow engraving requests that "would be considered illegal according to local laws, rules, and regulations of the countries and regions" in which it is offered.

The Citizen Lab found that Apple's blocked keywords in Taiwan are a subset of the filtered words applied in Hong Kong, which are in turn a subset of censored words used in mainland China. Researchers found evidence suggesting Apple designed its censored keyword list for mainland China first, then constructed the Hong Kong and Taiwan lists by removing some content that doesn't bear similar political importance for other regions. But they didn't take out everything inapplicable.

"That wouldn't show that these political terms are being censored intentionally, but it would still show that Apple is using a problematic methodology for constructing the lists used in Hong Kong and Taiwan," Knockel explained.

Horvath said Apple handles engraving requests regionally. "There is no single global list that contains one set of words or phrases," Horvath wrote in her letter. "Instead, these decisions are made through a review process where our teams assess local laws as well as their assessment of cultural sensitivities."

"Apple does not fully understand what content they censor"

There's also evidence that suggests that rather than carefully curating its own filter words list, Apple has copied strings of random keywords from blacklists used by Chinese tech companies.

Citizen Lab researchers identified different censored lists developed by four Chinese companies that have "a shockingly high amount of overlap" of anomalous sequences of keywords with that of Apple's. For example, Apple's list contains 10 random Chinese names surnamed Zhang with no clear political significance, and researchers found that those names appeared in a larger interval of keywords blacklisted by the Sina Show live streaming software. In another case, Apple blocks the term "SNK.NI8.NET," which refers to a website that hasn't been in operation since 2005. Researchers found it in a long string of filter words on NetEase Games' blacklist, which Apple all copied to block.

Laws and regulations in China regarding content moderation are largely vague and opaque. There is no central censored keyword list in China; instead, tech companies are left on their own to develop lists of words and names to block, meaning little overlap exists between censored lists owned by different companies, according to Knockel. The significant overlap of consecutive filtered words between Apple's list and those used by Chinese tech companies, however, doesn't suggest that Apple copied its list from Chinese companies. "Maybe there's some third party, possibly even the government, who provided them to Apple," Knockel said.

Though Apple's engraving political censorship seems expansive, Eric Liu, whose earlier documentation of blocked keywords on Apple's new AirTag products for the China Digital Times inspired the Citizen Lab's investigation, told Protocol that Apple's censorship scope is far narrower than that of the Chinese companies. Liu is a former censor for Chinese tech companies. "Apple has made some essential mistakes that even novices [in China] will not make," Liu said. "For example, the children of senior national leaders are not in its sensitive thesaurus, which is absolutely not allowed [in China]; they are much more sensitive than [dissident] Cheng Guangcheng or [exiled Tibetan spiritual leader] the Dalai Lama."

Liu believes what he calls the "lameness" of Apple's China filter list suggests Apple might have its own in-house censorship team, because "if it were a Chinese company to provide censorship to Apple, they would've done a far better job."

Apple's Horvath confirmed in her letter that the multinational company's own content moderation teams rely on information from outside sources, but "no third parties or government agencies have been involved [in] the process [of filtering words]." She also wrote that Apple's curation of blocked terms for the most part "is not an automated process and relies on manual curation," which at times "can result in engraving requests being mistakenly rejected." Citizen Lab researchers said it's difficult to compare lists. But for Apple, or any tech company operating in China, their yardstick for "success" is whether their censorship system can keep them out of trouble.

"At the end of the day, for a lot of companies, filtering is the cost they have to bear for conducting business in China," Lotus Ruan, co-author of the report and a senior researcher at The Citizen Lab, told Protocol. Censorship "could be something [companies] just want to get over with ... to show the government that they have done something already."

Workplace

He couldn’t go to the cabin, so he brought the cabin to his cubicle

"Building forts” has long been a passion of Lucas Mundt's. Now, his employer plans to give out $200 stipends for cubicle decor.

Lucas Mundt scoured Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace to complete his masterpiece.

Photo: Mike Beckham

It took a little work to get viral cubicle-decorator Lucas Mundt on the phone. On Monday, he was taking a half-day to help a friend fix his laminate floor. Tuesday, I caught him in the middle of an officewide Pop-A-Shot basketball tournament. His employer, the Oklahoma water bottle-maker Simple Modern, was getting rid of the arcade-style hoops game, and “glorious prizes and accolades” were on the line, Mundt said. (CEO Mike Beckham was eliminated in the first round, I heard from a source.)

Why did I want to talk with Mundt? His cubicle astonished nearly 300,000 Twitter users this week after Beckham tweeted out photos of it converted into what can only be described as a lakeside cabin motif. Using leftover laminate flooring that he found on Facebook Marketplace, Mundt created the appearance of a hardwood floor, and he carefully applied contact paper to give his cubicle walls, desk and file cabinet the look of a cozy cabin. The space heater that looks like a wood stove? Purely decorative: Mundt runs hot. The two fake mounted animal heads? They’re “kind of ironic,” said Mundt, who’s never gone hunting.

Keep Reading Show less
Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.

COVID-19 accelerated what many CEOs and CTOs have struggled to do for the past decade: It forced organizations to be agile and adjust quickly to change. For all the talk about digital transformation over the past decade, when push came to shove, many organizations realized they had made far less progress than they thought.

Now with the genie of rapid change out of the bottle, we will never go back to accepting slow and steady progress from our organizations. To survive and thrive in times of disruption, you need to build a resilient, adaptable business with systems and processes that will keep you nimble for years to come. An essential part of business agility is responding to change by quickly developing new applications and adapting old ones. IT faces an unprecedented demand for new applications. According to IDC, by 2023, more than 500 million digital applications and services will be developed and deployed — the same number of apps that were developed in the last 40 years.[1]

Keep Reading Show less
Denise Broady, CMO, Appian
Denise oversees the Marketing and Communications organization where she is responsible for accelerating the marketing strategy and brand recognition across the globe. Denise has over 24+ years of experience as a change agent scaling businesses from startups, turnarounds and complex software companies. Prior to Appian, Denise worked at SAP, WorkForce Software, TopTier and Clarkston Group. She is also a two-time published author of “GRC for Dummies” and “Driven to Perform.” Denise holds a double degree in marketing and production and operations from Virginia Tech.
Fintech

Ripple’s CEO won’t apologize for taking on the SEC

“The SEC declared war on Ripple. We’re defending ourselves.”

Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse isn’t apologizing for his company’s pugnacious stance with regulators.

Photo: Ripple

Ripple just bought back a huge chunk of its shares this week, which CEO Brad Garlinghouse touted as a sign of the crypto company’s momentum.

But he also used the opportunity to hit back at the agency that the crypto powerhouse considers its nemesis: the SEC.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Boost 2

Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?

He's turning Automattic into a different kind of tech giant. But can he take on the trillion-dollar walled gardens and give the internet back to the people?

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and founder of WordPress, poses for Protocol at his home in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Arturo Olmos for Protocol

In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Mullenweg didn't move to a compound in Hawaii, bug out to a bunker in New Zealand or head to Miami and start shilling for crypto. No, in the early days of the pandemic, Mullenweg bought an RV. He drove it all over the country, bouncing between Houston and San Francisco and Jackson Hole with plenty of stops in national parks. In between, he started doing some tinkering.

The tinkering is a part-time gig: Most of Mullenweg’s time is spent as CEO of Automattic, one of the web’s largest platforms. It’s best known as the company that runs WordPress.com, the hosted version of the blogging platform that powers about 43% of the websites on the internet. Since WordPress is open-source software, no company technically owns it, but Automattic provides tools and services and oversees most of the WordPress-powered internet. It’s also the owner of the booming ecommerce platform WooCommerce, Day One, the analytics tool Parse.ly and the podcast app Pocket Casts. Oh, and Tumblr. And Simplenote. And many others. That makes Mullenweg one of the most powerful CEOs in tech, and one of the most important voices in the debate over the future of the internet.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

The Twitter account Elon Musk would pay to delete

‘I’ve put a lot of work into it, and $5k is just really not enough.’

Elon Musk considers the Twitter account a security risk.

Photoillustration: Brendan Smialowski/AFP and Getty Images Plus; Protocol

“Can you take this down? It is a security risk.”

That’s how Elon Musk opened a conversation with 19-year-old Jack Sweeney over Twitter DM last fall. He was referencing a Twitter account, called @ElonJet, which tracks the movements of his private jet around the world.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol, covering breaking news. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

Enterprise

Intel must spend $100B in Ohio now to avoid spending more later

Forget the politics. Here’s why Intel’s new factories in Ohio are crucial to the company’s future and its hope of regaining the chip manufacturing leadership spot.

Intel is doubling down on its own contract manufacturing business for fabless chipmakers.

Photo: Walden Kirsch/Intel Corporation

Intel’s plans to invest up to $100 billion in a new group of chip factories outside Columbus, Ohio, will have a much greater impact on the future of its manufacturing division compared to any short-term political or supply-chain concerns it might solve.

To hear President Joe Biden, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine tell it, the new factories — known as fabs in this world — are going to help fix inflation, make the U.S. more competitive, drive down the soaring cost of cars, ease the chip supply-chain shocks and improve U.S. national security. That’s a lot, even for one of the biggest projects in Intel’s storied history. It will be years before that capacity comes online, and whether a new chip factory in Ohio could actually solve any or all of those issues is debatable.

Keep Reading Show less
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a Technology Reporter at Protocol covering the semiconductor industry. He has worked for Barron's magazine as a Technology Reporter, and its sister site MarketWatch. He is based in San Francisco.

Latest Stories
Bulletins