How Apple Censors News in China
Image credit: Larry Salibra

How Apple Censors News in China

The release of iOS 9 saw the launch of Apple’s attempt to revolutionize the news industry, Apple News. While Apple has been pretty clear that News is launching first in the United States, users typically haven’t had any problem using it in other countries as long as your iPhone’s region is set to the United States. I’ve used Apple News for months in Hong Kong and really enjoy am addicted to using it to keep up with my favorite publications. But what if Apple decided to take News away from me? Why would Apple ever do that?

Apple’s China Risk

As someone who has run a business in China for the better part of a decade, Apple’s increasing sales, marketshare and dependence on China for growth gives me mixed feelings. The larger Apple gets in China, the more power and leverage the Chinese government has over the company.

As Apple’s hardware products become more and more dependent on cloud services and content the company moves deeper into politically sensitive waters. There is the risk that a sudden policy change from Beijing could cut off their services. Or Beijing could force Apple to make decisions unpalatable to their customers in other parts of the world, squeezing them out of the market much like what happened to Google.

Beats 1 not on device

Control over the media is very important to the Chinese Communist Party and is a tool it uses to maintain what it calls a “harmonious society.” It wasn’t surprising when Apple Music launched in China along with iBooks and iTunes Movies that the most revolutionary part of Apple Music, the 24 hour live radio station Beats 1, was conspicuously absent. No way a foreign company would be permitted to run a live radio station in China even if the content is only Zane Lowe helping us discover new music. Music is subversive.

GFW is here.
The Great Firewall of China keeps your vacation Facebook, Twitter and Google free!

Despite not offering Beats 1 to Chinese Apple Music subscribers, the station works fine in China for subscribers like me traveling from other countries as long as you’re roaming or using a VPN. Beats 1 blocks countries by IP address at the server and not on device.

No News for You!

The fact that Beats 1 had been working fine for me during my short trips north across the border led me to assume that Apple News would work as well. I was wrong.

Last week during a short holiday in Mainland China, I was surprised to find that the News App refused to work from my hotel in Dongguan even though I was using uncensored roaming internet.

News won't refresh
This Bloomberg piece criticizing the spoiled children of China's power elite China is exactly the type of story the Party wants to censor.

Strange. Could it be that Apple was tracking my location and using geofencing to disable the News app in the Mainland? I resolved to do some testing next time I was near the border.

Divided by a River

I selected the Lok Ma Chau-Futian border crossing for my investigation because it is an area where Hong Kong and Mainland China are separated by the Shenzhen River which is only a few hundred meters wide. There is also a pedestrian bridge which isn’t as crowded as the one at Lo Wu.

I would conduct my trials as I headed north from Hong Kong’s Lok Ma Chau MTR station.

In Hong Kong connected to a Hong Kong network

Upon entering the Lok Ma Chau immigration facility in Hong Kong, I was conducted to my home carrier China Mobile Hong Kong’s (CMHK) LTE network. Apple News worked normally as it does everywhere else in Hong Kong.

View of Lok Ma Chau MTR
View of Lok Ma Chau MTR Station in Hong Kong from across the border at Futian Port.

In Hong Kong connected to a China network

I manually searched for other networks using the carrier setting on my iPhone and tried connecting to the China Mobile’s Mainland network (CMCC). As soon as I connected to the network, the Apple News App would refuse to refresh or open any of the articles already displayed on the screen, showing the message “News isn’t supported in your current region”.

News won't refresh
Can't refresh or won't refresh?

In China connected to a China network

I reconnected to the Hong Kong network and News behaved normally again. After going through Hong Kong Immigration, crossing the bridge and passing through China Immigration, I lost the Hong Kong signal (because I was indoors) and my phone connected automatically to the China network. Unsurprisingly, the News App would no longer refresh.

I checked my IP address to make sure it hadn’t changed. It was still the same CMHK IP address that Duckduckgo said was located in Central, Hong Kong.

CMHK IP address
To computers on the Internet, your phone appears to be accessing the Internet from your home country even when you are roaming abroad.

In China connected to a Hong Kong network

I exited the Futian Checkpoint Immigration building and walked over to an area in a parking lot near the edge of Shenzhen River a few hundred meters from Hong Kong and with a view of the bridge I had just crossed.

Bridge from Futian Port
Networks from both sides of the border are very strong.

From here, I was able to manually reconnect to the Hong Kong network. After reconnecting to the CMHK across the river in Hong Kong, I was immediately able to use the News App again.

Network selection screen
3 networks from China; 6 networks from Hong Kong

The China Kill Switch

At this point, it was pretty obvious that Apple isn’t using location tracking and geofencing to shut down the News App, but is doing so based on the mobile network the phone connected. This behavior points to the mechanism Apple uses to disable normal Apple Maps and replace it with Beijing-approved maps provided by the Chinese company Autonavi.

CMHK Network Info CMHK Network Info
Mobile networks have country and network codes. Hong Kong's code is 454; China's is 460. 454-12 is CMHK; 460-0 is China Mobile.

Balancing privacy and pragmatism

One can speculate that someone in Apple, understandably, decided that it was better to simply disable the News app within China than be force to get into the business of censoring content article by article to comply with Beijing’s wishes. They probably didn’t have a choice given the importance of the China market to their bottom.

What worries me, is that the mechanism Apple uses to disable the News app and Apple Maps uses the location of the user to change the behavior of their device without their permission, even if the location service is disabled in the privacy settings.

This “China Kill Switch” is currently limited to disabling the News App and Apple Maps, but it is easy to imagine a Chinese government official asking Apple to extend that ability to other Apps and services on our iPhones.

Story unavailable
News and Maps are unavailable in China even using a VPN. What will be next?
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Larry Salibra

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I'm an entrepreneur and Engineering Partner at Blockstack where I'm building a new internet for decentralized apps. More about me.