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."


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