Apple's engraving service censoring political phrases in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan stores - new report
- Researchers at the University of Toronto said Apple's engraving service blocked 1,045 keywords in mainland China.
- In Hong Kong, phrases referencing the city's pro-democracy movement were blocked, too.
- Apple responded to the report, saying it handles engraving requests according to cultural sensitivities.
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A team of researchers at the University of Toronto have accused Apple's engraving service of censoring references to landmark political events and activist movements in its Chinese, Hong Kong, and Taiwan stores.
By keying in thousands of phrases into the company's engraving service in its local websites, researchers at the human rights and technology research group CitizenLab found that a whopping 1,045 keywords were blocked by Apple's engraving service in mainland China.
In addition, Apple's services blocked 542 keywords in Hong Kong and 397 in Taiwan.
The researchers also checked keywords in Japan, Canada, and the US. They found that Apple engraving services within those countries prohibited between 170 to 206 keywords, mostly in the categories of racist and sexist epithets.
"Within mainland China, we found that Apple censors political content, including broad references to the Chinese leadership and China's political system, names of dissidents and independent news organizations, and general terms relating to religions, democracy, and human rights," wrote CitizenLab researchers Jeffrey Knockel and Lotus Ruan.
In China, for instance, the engraving "8964," a reference to the Tiananmen Square protests on June 4, 1989, was not allowed. The Chinese phrase "?????," or "The Highest Leader," a reference to Chinese President Xi Jinping, was disallowed in Taiwan.
"We found that part of Apple's mainland China political censorship bleeds into both Hong Kong and Taiwan. 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," Knockel and Ruan wrote.
The researchers also found that Apple's engraving service censored ten random Chinese names with the surname "Zhang," despite them not having a particular political significance.
"Apple does not fully understand what content they censor," the researchers wrote. "Rather than each censored keyword being born of careful consideration, many seem to have been thoughtlessly reappropriated from other sources."
Apple says its engraving requests take into consideration cultural sensitivities and local laws
Jane Horvath, Apple's chief privacy officer, responded to CitizenLab's researchers in a letter on August 17.
In the letter, Horvath said Apple is "glad to offer customers the opportunity to express themselves," but added that the company has guidelines to ensure "local laws and customs are respected and adhered to in every country and region where we operate."
"We try to not allow requests which could represent trademark or intellectual property violations, are vulgar or culturally insensitive, could be construed as inciting violence, or would be considered illegal according to local laws, rules, and regulations of the countries and regions where we personalize and where we ship," Horvath added.
She said that Apple handles engraving requests "regionally" and that there is no single "global list" of prohibited words and phrases.
"Instead, these decisions are made through a review process where our teams assess local laws as well as their assessment of cultural sensitivities. We revisit these decisions from time to time," Horvath said. "While those teams rely on information from a range of sources, no third parties or government agencies have been involved in the process."
According to the New York Times, Apple earns a fifth of its revenue from China and assembles nearly all of its products there. Apple also reaps significant profits from the region - it earned $14.76 billion in Greater China in the third quarter of 2021, up 58.2% from the same timeframe in 2020.
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