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Apple stops censoring terms it etches onto iPhones in Taiwan

Still won't let Hong Kong buyers use terms Beijing may not appreciate

Apple has stopped political censorship of terms that buyers choose to have engraved onto its products in Taiwan – but has kept the policy in both mainland China and Hong Kong, leading an academic research group to wonder whether Apple does not fully understand its own censorship policies and applications, or is bowing to Beijing's wishes.

In August 2021, Citizen Lab – a research group based out of the University of Toronto – conducted extensive research into how Apple filters terms submitted to its engraving services. Apple allows buyers to have custom messages etched on the exteriors of iPhones, AirPods, iPads and other Apple products, but even in the most liberal democracies it places some limits on what it will engrave – no swear words, for example.

That research found Apple inconsistently applied content moderation – going beyond legal requirements in Hong Kong while disallowing terms likely to anger Beijing for Taiwanese customers even though it had no obligation to do so.

Furthermore, the researchers could find no public document listing terms that Apple refused to engrave. The lack of guidelines or policy led Citizen Lab to conclude "Apple does not fully understand what content they censor."

"Rather than each censored keyword being born of careful consideration, many seem to have been thoughtlessly re-appropriated from other sources," wrote the researchers.

At the time, Apple responded [PDF] by stating that it created its own list of forbidden words, and always applies local laws as required.

Citizen Lab has now revisited the matter and found China-friendly censorship has ceased in Taiwan. Script like "StandWithHongKong" and "8964" – a reference to Tiananmen Square – can now be engraved onto iThings in Taiwan. But not in Hong Kong or mainland China.

Hong Kong has, in recent years, been shorn of promised autonomy. China has also cracked down on big tech – when companies act against Beijing's wishes trouble follows swiftly./

Apple, meanwhile, wins approximately 20 per cent of its revenue in China and is dependent on many Middle Kingdom companies to produce its products.

Citizen Lab has come up with several guesses why Apple has decided to keep censorship strong in Hong Kong, but not Taiwan. The group notes that while company policy could be designed to follow the law strictly or to protect consumers, both of these hypotheses seem unlikely. Hong Kong law requires companies be responsible for internet content, but there is nothing within the law obligating business to proactively apply censorship in all spheres.

"We are aware of no other major US-based tech company applying automated political censorship to users in Hong Kong," noted Citizen Lab, adding "Companies Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and Twitter stopped responding to Hong Kong data access requests related to the law."

A hypothesis that Apple "is negligent in understanding the content that they censor" seems more likely, given that Citizen Lab was able to find lists of terms not to be used published by other companies, but was denied access to such a list by Apple.

"Together, this problematic process would explain how Chinese political censorship and other content which Apple poorly understands could have slipped into both Taiwan and Hong Kong's lists, and our finding that Apple no longer politically censors in Taiwan would appear to be a tacit acknowledgement of Apple that their political censorship in Taiwan was negligent," wrote the researchers.

"However, despite Apple being equally informed of their political censorship in Hong Kong as that in Taiwan, our findings in this report show that they have not similarly abandoned it," they added.

The group's last hypothesis is that Apple is attempting to appease Beijing.

In the past, Apple has removed around 1,000 apps from its App Store in the Middle Kingdom at the government's behest, while also going above and beyond the minimum required to comply with Chinese law and regulations – despite advice to the contrary from human rights groups.

So keeping China happy may go some way to explaining at least some of Apple's policy behaviour here. ®

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