Report: Apple censors political content in engravings in China

Apple Products Engraving 202104 Geo Gb
Apple Products Engraving 202104 Geo Gb (Image credit: Apple)

What you need to know

  • A new report has revealed how Apple censors device engraving in China.
  • That includes references to leadership and political content.
  • The study also revealed words and phrases not allowed in the U.S. and Canada.

A new report into Apple's engraving system has revealed how the company censors political content in places like China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

Citizen Lab analyzed product engraving in six countries and found over 1,100 filtered keywords, noting in particular political censorship in China:

Within mainland China, we found that Apple censors political content including broad references to Chinese leadership and China's political system, names of dissidents and independent news organizations, and general terms relating to religions, democracy, and human rights. 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.

According to Citizen Lab its evidence indicates "that Apple does not fully understand what content they censor and that, rather than each censored keyword being born of careful consideration, many seem to have been thoughtlessly reappropriated from other sources. In one case, Apple censored ten Chinese names surnamed Zhang with generally unclear significance. The names appear to have been copied from a list we found also used to censor products from a Chinese company."

As noted, CL insinuates that Apple doesn't seem to be fully aware of what content it is actually censoring in China and that this further radiates into Hong Kong and Taiwan. In a letter of reponse Apple's Jane Horvath stated that Apple's process for engraving was led by its values, adding:

As we state on our website the feature was designed to add names, initials, phone numbers or a favorite emoji. 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. We handle engraving requests regionally. There is no single global list that contains one set of words or 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. While those teams rely on information from a range of sources, no third parties or government agencies have been involved in the process.

Citizen Lab says its finding in the study "echo previous work on international companies' differential treatments of Chinese users and international users under China's strict information control apparatus, subjecting only Chinese users to political censorship." It says the study points to "a more alarming trend of the export of one jurisdiction's regulatory and political pressures to another as well as the growing uncertainties and dilemmas global companies face between upholding internationally acknowledged human rights norms and making decisions purely based on commercial interests."

It further warned that future work should investigate whether Apple "also conducts politically-motivated filtering or applies censorship of mainland Chinese political sensitivity to regions that are geographically distanced from yet strategically important to China."

Stephen Warwick
News Editor

Stephen Warwick has written about Apple for five years at iMore and previously elsewhere. He covers all of iMore's latest breaking news regarding all of Apple's products and services, both hardware and software. Stephen has interviewed industry experts in a range of fields including finance, litigation, security, and more. He also specializes in curating and reviewing audio hardware and has experience beyond journalism in sound engineering, production, and design. Before becoming a writer Stephen studied Ancient History at University and also worked at Apple for more than two years. Stephen is also a host on the iMore show, a weekly podcast recorded live that discusses the latest in breaking Apple news, as well as featuring fun trivia about all things Apple. Follow him on Twitter @stephenwarwick9