Apple bows to Beijing, again; Turkey blocks social media after Istanbul blast; more Musk mayhem at Twitter
SITONG BRIDGE PROTEST PROMPTS APPLE’S LATEST 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 handpainted across it in bright red.
The censors quickly got to work. Posts including words like “bridge” and “Sitong” were censored on Weibo, Baidu and other leading Chinese social media platforms.
But Chinese companies (working at Beijing’s behest) weren’t alone in their efforts to stifle discussions about 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 for iPhone’s AirDrop feature, which allows one to share a message or image with anyone in close physical range. Apple users in mainland China can still use this feature, but South China Morning Post reports that it gives them a “10 minute time limit in which to receive files from non-contacts.” The move may have come in response to reports that people were sharing photos and videos of the Sitong Bridge protest by AirDropping them to strangers in public parks and on subways.
This is not the first time that Apple has made product or system adjustments in apparent response to pressure from Beijing. In 2018, reporters at Hong Kong Free Press found that the company had implemented special rules for what kinds of words people could have engraved on an iPhone when requesting the service from inside mainland China and Hong Kong. If you wanted to name your phone after Liu Xiaobo, the 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. In spite of questions and pressure from activists and shareholders alike, the company has never offered an explanation of what precipitated 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 at the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou known as “iPhone City,” it’s clear why Apple is all too willing to play by Beijing’s rules, especially when it comes to political speech.
IN GLOBAL NEWS:
After a deadly explosion rocked Istanbul on Sunday, killing six people and injuring at least 81, Turkish authorities moved quickly to control social media. “If you do not have access to a reliable VPN service (which is also not blocked from Türkiye), you are then in the dark right now,” tweeted tech law professor Yaman Akdeniz. The authorities ordered telecommunications providers to either block or throttle Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Local media outlet Oksijen reported that 25 social media accounts were under official investigation for postings about the explosion that might have incited fear, panic or hatred. Speaking with Balkan Insight, media freedom researcher Gurkan Ozturan said the response “signals darker times for digital freedoms.” Indeed. With elections coming up in June 2023, and new legislation on the books that criminalizes “disseminating false information,” the cost of doing journalism — or even just using social media — is rising once again in Turkey.
Spanish law enforcement will soon use facial recognition technology that can identify suspects in a criminal investigation “in a few seconds,” drawing from any type of image. Meanwhile, Italy’s data protection authority dinged two municipalities for experimenting with similar systems and issued a moratorium on the technology, but left a huge carve-out for use by law enforcement agencies. Although these systems may pose serious threats to civil liberties, it sounds like other EU states are poised to follow Spain’s lead, particularly when it comes to policing their borders. For a look at how U.S. cities are handling similar questions, 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 am 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 customers’ privacy or security. The company also made headlines last year when it bought Telenor’s network in Myanmar. The Norwegian telecom firm said it sold its holdings there after Myanmar’s military junta demanded that they enable authorities to surveil customers’ conversations. Whether in Afghanistan or Myanmar, I imagine that M1, which got its start in Syria, is less troubled by the prospect of being forced to impose wiretaps (or worse) on their customers.
This week, Twitter’s Musk-induced nightmare included system features failing and more staffers getting canned. Many media are focused on the internal fallout and how the changes are affecting online speech, but privacy and data security are a big concern too. The company no longer has a data protection officer, which probably means it’s violating EU regulations — Rebekah Tromble has a good thread on what this might mean down the road.
My former colleague Jan Rydzak, of the tech accountability group Ranking Digital Rights, told me 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 of 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 of shareholders to pressure the company to protect people’s data or publish transparency reports, which have become a standard practice among Big Tech companies. “If we’ve tried to motivate a race to the top, now there’s a powerful actor [Musk] who’s driving in the other direction,” he said. “It would not be a surprise to see [other companies] follow suit.”
On that note, the ripple effects of chaos at Twitter are already apparent 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 things will get but with morale and confidence low, executive decisions apparently made on a whim and falling revenue, social media is defenseless against disinformation and manipulation by both authoritarian regimes and individual bad actors.
WHAT WE’RE READING
- Nieman Reports has an important piece about Meta’s evident departure from supporting journalism on its platform. The company has “shifted resources away from its News tab, shuttered the Bulletin newsletter program, ended support for Instant Articles, eliminated human-curation in favor of algorithms, and stopped paying U.S. publishers to use their news content.” This doesn’t bode well for anyone — users and small newsrooms alike.
- Thomson Reuters Foundation: Avi Asher-Shapiro wrote a great survey of how changes at Twitter will affect people in different parts of the world. He quotes Pakistani digital rights luminary Nighat Dad, who put it plainly: “I see Elon’s tweets and I think he just wants Twitter to be a place for the U.S. audience, and not something safe for the rest of the world.”