The latest example of Internet censorship in China involves a news app in Apple’s iOS 9 for iPhones and iPads, which the company has begun blocking for people travelling through China.
Reports of Apple blocking its News app — which delivers, well, news to mobile device users — first appeared earlier this month. A few days ago, the New York Times confirmed that the app has been inaccessible in mainland China.
For its part, Apple has not yet made a public statement on the matter.
The iOS News app is currently only available for installation to iPhone and iPad users based in the United States. (Apple is also testing the product in Australia and the United Kingdom.) However, once users install News, they can normally use it from any country while travelling.
Not so in China, where Apple appears to be deploying what some developers have called the “China Kill Switch” to censor content.
Since Apple has not addressed the issue publicly, it’s impossible to know exactly why the company chose to block the News app in China. Based on the long history of Internet censorship by the Chinese government, however, it’s a safe bet that pressure from the authorities — or a desire to preempt tension with government censors — motivated Apple’s decision.
Critics have also noted that Apple appears able to block News based on a user’s location even if a user disables location services in the privacy settings of a device. In other words, Apple has built functionality into its products that allows it to determine a user’s physical location and use that information to censor or filter online content regardless of whether the user takes steps to restrict monitoring of his whereabouts.
That functionality is what’s most worrying. Blocking a news app is not a big deal for most users, since it’s easy enough to get news from other sources. But tools users can’t turn off that enable a device manufacturer to censor content in response to government pressure create dangerous new censorship possibilities, even against censorship-conscious users who take steps to protect their privacy.