According to a new report from the Brussels-based CitizenLab, Apple is censoring words and phrases that customers can engrave on their products in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Apple has always claimed that it filters engraving requests to avoid racist language, vulgarity, and intellectual property violations, but CitizenLab claims that the company’s restrictions on political references in Hong Kong and Taiwan go above and beyond legal requirements.
“We found that part of Apple’s mainland China political censorship bleeds into both Hong Kong and Taiwan,” the authors’ report stated. “Much of this censorship exceeds Apple’s legal obligations in Hong Kong, and we are aware of no legal justification for the political censorship of content in Taiwan.”
Apple does not disclose a complete list of banned phrases by region, but CitizenLab discovered that the company filters 1,045 keywords in China, compared to 542 in Hong Kong, 397 in Taiwan, 206 in Canada, 192 in Japan, and 170 in the US.
While political phrases are not filtered in the US, Canada, or Japan, political phrases accounted for nearly half of all blocked keywords in China and Hong Kong. CitizenLab’s research focused on engraving requests for AirTags and iPads, but the only differences it found were in keyword length and lowercase words.
In China, keywords like 政治 (politics), 抵制 (resist), 民主潮 (wave of democracy), and 人权 (human rights) are filtered. Chinese customers are not allowed to use the four numbers 8964 — which refer to the Tiananmen Square protests on June 4th, 1989 — for AirTag engravings, which are limited to four characters.
According to CitizenLab, the strict censorship in mainland China bleeds into Hong Kong and Taiwan. Hong Kong is a Chinese “special administrative region” with significant political autonomy, though China has cracked down on democratic movements in recent months and years.
Taiwan, on the other hand, is a self-governing democracy that China regards as a breakaway province that should be reunited with China.
The phrases 雙普選 (double universal suffrage), 雨伞革命 (Umbrella Revolution), and 新聞自由 (freedom of the press) are all banned in Hong Kong. Apple customers in Taiwan are prohibited from mentioning high-ranking members of the Chinese Communist Party, such as 孫春蘭 (Sun Chunlan), or the banned religious movement 法輪功 (Falun Gong).
CitizenLab says, “Apple is under no legal obligation to perform such political censorship in Taiwan.” Apple, on the other hand, has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to make political concessions in order to maintain its presence in China, which accounts for nearly a fifth of its total revenue.
After the iPhone maker unveiled a controversial system to detect CSAM (child sexual abuse material) on its devices, the extent to which Apple is willing to bend to Chinese pressure has become particularly sensitive in recent weeks.
The system scans users’ phones for illegal content locally, but critics are concerned that it could be expanded beyond CSAM to detect other types of illegal content. This may include political dissent in China.
In response to CitizenLab’s investigation, Apple stated that it filters engraving requests based on “local laws, rules, and regulations.” It did not respond to criticism that its censorship in Hong Kong and Taiwan was excessive.
“We handle engraving requests regionally. There is no single global list that contains one set of words or phrases,” wrote Apple’s chief privacy officer Jane Horvath in a letter. “Instead, these decisions are made through a review process where our teams assess local laws as well as their assessment of cultural sensitivities.”