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The four numbers Apple won’t let you engrave on your iPad in China

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‘Much of this censorship exceeds Apple’s legal obligations’

The 2020 iPad Air in blue Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Apple is censoring words and phrases customers can engrave on products in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, according to a new report by Toronto-based research institute The Citizen Lab. The iPhone-maker has always said it filters engraving requests to avoid racist language, vulgarities, or intellectual property violations, but The Citizen Lab says the company’s restrictions of political references in Hong Kong and Taiwan particularly go above and beyond legal requirements.

“We found that part of Apple’s mainland China political censorship bleeds into both Hong Kong and Taiwan,” write the report’s authors. “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.”

Apple does not offer a complete list of banned phrases by region, but analysis by The Citizen Lab found that the company filters 1,045 keywords in China, compared to 542 in Hong Kong, 397 in Taiwan, 206 in Canada, 192 in Japan, and 170 in the United States. While no political phrases are filtered in the US, Canada, or Japan, nearly half of all blocked keywords in China and Hong Kong were political in nature. The Citizen Lab’s analysis looked specifically at engraving requests for AirTags and iPads, but the only differences it noted in restrictions between the products were related to keyword length and lowercase words.

Comparisons of filtered keywords by type and region.
Image: The Citizen Lab

Keywords filtered in China include 政治 (politics), 抵制 (resist), 民主潮 (wave of democracy), and 人权 (human rights). For AirTag engravings, which are limited to four characters, Chinese customers are not allowed to use the four numbers 8964 — which refer to the Tiananmen Square protests, which took place on June 4th, 1989.

The Citizen Lab says the rigorous censorship applied in mainland China bleeds into Hong Kong and Taiwan. Hong Kong is a “special administrative region” of China that has enjoyed a high level of political independence, though China has cracked down on its democratic movements in recent months and years. Taiwan, meanwhile, is a self-governing democracy that China considers to be a breakaway state that should reunite with the mainland.

In Hong Kong, banned phrases include 雙普選 (double universal suffrage), 雨伞革命 (Umbrella Revolution), and 新聞自由 (freedom of the press). In Taiwan, Apple customers are not allowed to reference high-ranking members of the Chinese Communist Party like 孫春蘭 (Sun Chunlan) or the banned religious movement 法輪功 (Falun Gong).

8964: a reference to the Tiananmen Square protests of June 4 1989.
Image: The Citizen Lab

The Citizen Lab notes that “there exists no legal obligation for Apple to perform such political censorship in Taiwan.” But Apple has repeatedly showed it will make political accommodations to preserve its presence in China, which accounts for nearly a fifth of its total revenues.

The degree to which Apple is willing to bend to Chinese pressure has become particularly sensitive in recent weeks after the iPhone-maker unveiled a controversial system to detect CSAM (child sexual abuse material) on its devices. The system scans users’ phones locally for the illegal material, but critics worry that it could be expanded beyond CSAM to detect other forms of illegal content. In China, that could include expression of political dissent.

Apple responded to the analysis by The Citizen Lab by saying it filters engraving requests with respect to “local laws, rules, and regulations.” It did not address any criticism that it was over-zealous in its censorship in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

“We handle engraving requests regionally. There is no single global list that contains one set of words or phrases,” said Apple’s chief privacy officer Jane Horvath, in a letter. “Instead, these decisions are made through a review process where our teams assess local laws as well as their assessment of cultural sensitivities.”

Correction, August 19th, 10:19AM ET: The headline and lead image of this story have been changed to reflect the fact that Apple only offers engraving services for the iPad, AirPods, Apple Pencil, iPod Touch, and AirTags — not the iPhone, as was previously suggested. We also corrected the location of Toronto-based The Citizen Lab, not to be confused with Brussels-based CitizenLab.