I’ve written in the past about how unhappy I’ve been with how Apple has handled some of its business in China. China is a favorite punching bag of the West, and some of that criticism is well warranted, and others, not so much.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, American social media has, rightfully, been criticized by meeting complaints about not stopping the spread of misinformation about the disease with a shrug until very late this year. For me, it is an interesting thing to consider. First, these are companies, and, therefore, are not bound by Constitutional protections for free speech. Secondly, even if it were, American citizens frequently believe that all of their Constitutional rights are unlimited, which they are not. In regards to free speech, the most famous example is that it is, in most places, illegal to shout fire in a crowded theater. Thirdly, if someone states that we should be policing obvious misinformation, inevitably someone else will counter with - if we do that, where do we stop? When does the Thought Police come into play?
Ultimately, I think that the summary that I’ve read about the First Amendment is that the government cannot prevent someone from thinking, saying, printing, sharing, or complaining about any given topic, however those previously mentioned activities are not necessarily free from consequence. Consequences are considered when sharing information is done in such a way that has harm. In the shouting fire example, the harm can be as everyone missing the last ten minutes of a show, to the theater losing revenue, to injury or death of people fleeing the theater in a panic. The example is an easy thing to think about, because it is easy to imagine. If I share online that wearing a mask does nothing to spread COVID-19 (a lie), how dangerous (the harm) is it? Unless a clear line can be drawn between me sharing that and some tangible damage done, how can the argument be made that I need to be held for responsible for something that cannot be proven?
Apple’s stance on privacy, in the United States, is something that I’ve cheered for in the past. As a quick side bar for my own comment, they’re not perfect, and trusting Apple as a Fort Knox for your data or what you do on the Internet is foolish, but they appear to be doing a much better job than all of their major competitors. However, in China - they don’t hold the same stance. Companies from the United States have to comply with different laws in China if they are interested in the Chinese government permitting them to continue to make yuan in China’s territory.
Apple’s iOS has recently been updated to hamper tracking by websites, but specifically Facebook. Even if you are not a Facebook user, Facebook has likely got a cookie or two in your browser cache tracking where you go. Facebook posted a ridiculously stupid claim that Apple’s change to Apple’s platform is going to hurt small businesses and help big businesses. The argument that some how small businesses are going to be run out of business because they can’t track users with razor sharp precision seems to be based on nothing. Andrés Arrieta writing for the EFF makes the argument better than I could. Three cheers for Apple on this one!
Another example - the Kazakhstan government apparently has created HTTPS certificate to spy on some of its residents search engine use. Apple (as well as Microsoft, Google, and Mozilla) have banned this certificate as invalid for their platforms. Kudos to these companies for this. However, I’ll bet you dollars to donuts, that none of these companies see a large revenue stream come from Kazakhstan.
China, on the other hand, is, no doubt, a cash cow for all of them. Quite a long time ago, I wrote about Apple removing HKmap.live at the behest of the Chinese government, which Hong Kong protestors had been using to track police movements. Apple, also at the behest of the Chinese government, had removed VPN apps that people had been using to circumvent The Great Firewall of China. As a quick aside, if you think that The Great Firewall is a violation of human rights, just remember, American company Cisco made it (Malicious Life’s The Great Firewall of China, part 1, part 2). The Firewall is why I mentioned the example of COVID misinformation earlier. I am against COVID-19 misinformation and I’d be happy to see it all removed from the Internet. The person who would challenge me with the slippery slope argument will probably point to The Great Firewall as an example of the possible extreme. As someone who is very much pro-free speech, I also think that COVID misinformation has caused harm, and a The Great Firewall would have mitigated that harm, but certainly would have caused harm elsewhere. Just to be clear on things, if having our own American country-wide censorship mechanism was put up to a vote, I would certainly vote no on that.
On a much more recent move, Apple has removed a whopping 46,000 apps from the Chinese iOS app store, most of them games. The reason is that these games have to have some sort of license from the government, and the makers of them, declined to bother to do so. The articles that I could find on this move didn’t really explain what this licensure was actually about, so I’m unclear if it is an important regulatory thing, or a hoop to jump through to prove that your company understands its legal obligations, or if its governmental grift like when I had to buy town tags for the car I already pay taxes on. China, famously, does have censorship laws that are far more tight than what the United States has, and how they show up in gaming is an area of interest since my World of Warcraft days. I remember that in the Chinese version of World of Warcraft, skulls apparently had been replaced by bread, making some strange tableaus in dungeons. The argument that I we all knew was that the Chinese government had said no to skulls, and the Blizzard developers just did a find-and-replace and chose to go with bread. In reality, it was likely that Blizzard, preemptively, made that change as to avoid any issues with the Chinese government, not a Chinese g-man coming around the office and demanding that skulls are replaced with loaves of bread. Game developers must just roll the dice on whether or not their content runs afoul of the content laws. For example, the prohibition on the supernatural should keep World of Warcraft from being available for sale in the Chinese markets whatsoever, but - it isn’t. And also, the Chinese government recognizes four different religions (China breaks Christianity into Protestantism and Catholicism), that seems like that should also be at odds with that rule.
I do think that there are ways that China does do business that I do not like, but I also think that Americans that throw stones should see that they live in a glass house. China has done a much better job at handling the pandemic than the United States has, and I imagine that a big part of that is managing public information about how to protect yourself and your own communities. I also believe that that could have been accomplished without draconian management of information.
My summary on all of this is that I have mixed feelings about not just how China handles (or mishandles) its rules for technology companies that do business in it’s territory, I also have mixed feelings about how the United States handles (or mishandles) its rules as well.