SITONG BRIDGE PROTEST PREVENTS APPLE’S LAST BOW TO BEIJING
“We want food, not covid tests; reform, not cultural revolution. We want freedom, not lockdowns; elections, not rulers. We want dignity, not lies. Be citizens, not slaves.” An unknown person made headlines last month after hanging a banner from Beijing’s Sitong Bridge with these words hand-painted across it in bright red.
The censors quickly got to work. Posts with words like “bro” and “Sitong” were censored on Weibo, Baidu and other leading Chinese social media platforms.
But Chinese companies (working on Beijing’s behalf) were not alone in their efforts to stifle discussion of the protest. China Digital Times reported that Apple Music removed the song “Sitong Bridge” from its Chinese streaming service.
And just this week, there was news of China-specific restrictions on the iPhone’s AirDrop feature, which lets you share a message or photo with anyone nearby. Apple users in mainland China can still use this feature, but the South China Morning Post reports that it gives them a “10-minute time limit to receive files from non-contacts.” The move may have come in response to reports that people were sharing photos and videos from the Sitong Bridge protest by AirDropping them to strangers in public parks and on subways.
It’s not the first time Apple has made product or system adjustments in apparent response to pressure from Beijing. In 2018, reporters at the Hong Kong Free Press found that the company had implemented special rules for the types of words people could have engraved on an iPhone when requesting the service from mainland China and Hong Kong. If you wanted to name your phone after Liu Xiaobo, Falun Gong or even Xi Jinping, Apple’s automated system would politely inform you that these terms were “inappropriate”.
During the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, hundreds of apps—including apps for the New York Times, Quartz, and a Hong Kong protest mapping app—were censored from the App Store. Despite questions and pressure from activists and shareholders alike, the company has never offered an explanation for what prompted these moves. But it’s easy enough to follow the money. Between its fluctuating but generally impressive market share in mainland China, and the fact that half of the world’s iPhones are made in the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, known as “iPhone City,” it’s clear why Apple is all too willing to follow Beijing’s rules, especially when it comes to political speech.
IN GLOBAL NEWS:
After a deadly explosion swinging Istanbul on Sunday killed six people and injured at least 81, Turkish authorities moved quickly to check social media. “If you don’t have access to a reliable VPN service (which is also not blocked from Türkiye), you are in the dark right now,” tweeted Professor of Technical Law Yaman Akdeniz. Authorities ordered telecom providers to either block or strangle Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Local media outlet Oksijen reported that 25 social media accounts were under official investigation for posts about the explosion that may have incited fear, panic or hatred. Speaking to Balkan Insight, media freedom researcher Gurkan Ozturan said the response “signals darker times for digital freedoms.” Really. With elections coming up in June 2023 and new legislation on the books criminalizing the “spreading of false information,” the cost of doing journalism—or even just using social media—is rising again in Turkey.
Spanish law enforcement agencies will soon use facial recognition technology which can identify suspects in a criminal investigation “in seconds”, from any type of image. Meanwhile, Italy’s data protection authority accused two municipalities of experimenting with similar systems and issued a moratorium on the technology, but left a major exception for use by law enforcement agencies. While these systems can pose serious threats to civil liberties, it sounds like other EU states are ready to follow Spain’s lead, especially when it comes to guarding their borders. For a look at how American cities are dealing with similar issues, check out this piece by my colleague Erica Hellerstein.
The Lebanese-owned M1 New Ventures became Afghanistan’s largest telecommunications provider last week, after it bought out South Africa-based MTN’s holdings in the country for $35 million. I’m looking for details on what the change might mean for people in Afghanistan, but it’s hard to imagine that M1 will do much to protect customer privacy or security. The company also made headlines last year when it bought Telenor’s network in Myanmar. The Norwegian telecom company said it sold its holdings there after Myanmar’s military junta demanded it allow authorities to monitor customers’ calls. Whether in Afghanistan or Myanmar, I imagine M1, which started in Syria, is less bothered by the prospect of being forced to impose wiretapping (or worse) on its clients.
This week, Twitter’s musk-induced nightmare included system functions failing and more employees being fired. Much media is focused on the internal fallout and how the changes affect speech online, but privacy and data security are also a big concern. The company no longer has a data protection officer, which likely means it’s breaking EU rules — Rebekah Tromble has a good wire about what this could mean down the road.
My former colleague Jan Rydzak, of the technical advocacy group Ranking Digital Rights, told me that he expects “a total collapse” of Twitter’s systems when it comes to user data security.
“Every day we see parts of the system breaking down. All these are openings for data leakage,” he said. He also pointed out that by making Twitter a private holding again, Musk has removed the ability for shareholders to pressure the company to protect people’s data or publish transparency reports, which has become a standard practice among Big Tech companies. “If we have tried to justify a race to the top, now there is a powerful actor [Musk] who drive the other way, he said. “It wouldn’t be a surprise to see [other companies] follow.”
On that note, the ripple effects of chaos at Twitter are already evident elsewhere in Silicon Valley, in light of falling stock prices and tens of thousands of layoffs at Meta, Amazon, and Salesforce, among others. Time will tell how bad it will get, but with low morale and low confidence, executive decisions apparently made on a whim and declining revenues, social media is defenseless against disinformation and manipulation by both authoritarian regimes and individual bad actors.
WHAT WE READ
- Nieman reports has an important piece on Meta’s apparent departure from supporting journalism on its platform. The company has “moved resources from its News tab, closed the Bulletin newsletter program, ended support for Instant Articles, eliminated human curation in favor of algorithms, and stopped paying US publishers to use their news content.” This does not bode well for anyone – both users and small newsrooms.
- Thomson Reuters Foundation: Avi Asher-Shapiro wrote a major study on how changes on Twitter will affect people in different parts of the world. He quotes Pakistani digital rights worker Nighat Dad, who put it plainly: “I see Elon’s tweets and I think he just wants Twitter to be a place for the American audience and not something safe for the rest of the world.”
From biometrics to surveillance – when power abusers misuse technology, the rest of us suffer