Apple’s conduct in China is once again under the spotlight, after it emerged that it has limited AirDrop in the country, after feature was used in anti-government protests.

Bloomberg’s noted Apple leaker, Mark Gruman, noted the development this week, pointing out that the limitation to AirDrop came after Apple quietly issued an update, which seems to only impact iPhone users in China.

Critics have previously slammed Apple’s co-operation with Beijing, in stark contrast to Google, which effectively withdrew from China after local hackers compromised the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents back in 2009 and 2010. Nearly all Google’s mainstream services remain banned China.

AirDrop restrictions

According to Mark Gruman, Apple made an under-the-radar tweak in iOS 16.1.1 and the most recent beta of iOS 16.2 late last week.

This tweak apparently limited AirDrop in China, so that iPhones can only receive files from non-contacts for up to 10 minutes.

Previously, there was no time limit if users had their AirDrop set to receive from “everyone.”

This change will certainly limit the problem of AirDrop spam, but Gruman said it is notable that the switch was introduced in China.

Why roll out the feature in a specific geography?, he asked.

It comes after widespread reports that anti government protesters were using AirDrop to share digital leaflets with strangers.

These digital leaflets were reportedly critical of the Chinese Communist party and were shared via AirDrop in crowded public spaces. This was said to be partly inspired by a protest in Beijing in which a man hung banners calling for the removal of the Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The Guardian reported that Chinese censors quickly scrubbed online videos and posts referring to the protest, while hundreds of users on the popular payment and chat app WeChat had their accounts blocked after speaking about the rare act of rebellion.

This update now makes it virtually impossible to receive unexpected files from strangers.

Apple is understood to be planning a rollout of the feature across the globe, the Guardian noted.

But for the time being, Apple phones sold outside mainland China last week did not appear to be affected by the update, while iPhones sold in China displayed the limit regardless of which country the user’s App Store account was based in.

China appeasement?

Apple has been criticised for years over its position in China, with some labelling its actions as appeasement, amid the increasingly repressive rule of President Xi Jinping, who recently embarked on third term in office as the country’s most powerful figure.

In 2014 Apple began storing the personal data of Chinese users on servers in mainland China – the first time it stored information in the country.

It partnered up with China Telecom Corp to use its data centres, saying the move would result in a faster service for iCloud users. However that move also allowed it to comply with Chinese government requests for data on thousands of Apple devices in the country.

Then in 2017 Apple announced that it would build a data centre in the Chinese province of Guizhou in order to comply with strict new Chinese data protection regulations.

Apple also in 2017 revealed plans to build two more R&D centres in Shanghai and Suzhou as part of a 3.5 billion yuan (£410 million) investment, adding to the two in Beijing and Shenzhen that were announced in 2016.

Other apparent concessions include removing an app in 2019 that allowed Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters to keep track of Chinese police.

Apple has also previously removed apps from the iTunes Store, paid podcasts and Apple TV+ services in China, as well as removing third-party VPN apps from the App Store and eliminating the flag of Taiwan emoji from the keyboard.

In 2021 Apple was criticised for removing one of the most popular Quran apps from its app store in China.

The company has been criticised as hypocritical for taking a vocal stance on issues such as privacy and human rights in the United States, but remaining silent on the same issues in other countries.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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