U.S. tech companies help with Chinese censorship - Activate World

U.S. tech companies help with Chinese censorship

The topic of Tiananmen Square, the pro-democracy protests that took place there 30 years ago, is banned by China’s authoritarian internet rules. The number of deaths is unknown with human rights organizations estimating a death toll many times that of local authorities. Chinese tech companies with the help of some U.S. companies block Tiananmen-related posts and web pages to comply with the country’s censorship rules.

Lunchtime Conversations:

  • Apple claims it can “promote fundamental rights” while still “disagreeing with a particular country’s law.” While it sounds nice in theory, does it hold true when dealing with the authoritarian regime of China?
  • Given how dependent Chinese manufacturing is on the U.S. consumer market, how can more influence be applied on China to make better democratic progress? 
  • The U.S. business community often looks at China through the lens of short-term market opportunities while ignoring long-term technological and competitive risks. What is the right approach to China for U.S. companies and universities?


  • Charles Mok, a Hong Kong legislator, was informed by LinkedIn in 2014  that a post referencing the Tiananmen anniversary would be censored in China.
  • When Apple launched the Product RED version of the iPhone 7 in China, it removed any trace of the Product RED branding that supports AIDS-related charities, a probable response to China’s anti-LGBT policies.
  • In April, Hong Kong media reported that Apple had removed songs mentioning political topics from the Apple Music service in mainland China, including one by Hong Kong star Jacky Cheung that references the Tiananmen protests. 


U.S. companies, Apple and Microsoft, participate in the censorship to gain access to the country’s lucrative market of more than 800 million people. These two companies and Google are all eyeing partnerships with Chinese businesses and increased expansion into the country.

To comply with the country’s rules, Microsoft keeps content the government deems sensitive out of Bing search results and off of its business networking site LinkedIn. At the government’s direction, Apple manages its app store differently in China than in other parts of the world. 

Apple has said that it removes VPN apps for bypassing China’s so-called Great Firewall, which blocks access to many overseas sites. Greatfire.org, which monitors Chinese censorship, indicates that anonymity tools and apps about Tibet and Falun Gong that are available in app stores around the world do not appear in China’s.

Neither Microsoft or Apple publicly discuss their policies in China. Human rights groups, and lawmakers from the US and elsewhere, accuse them of helping to suppress rights they acknowledge as essential in their home markets. 

Companies used to rely on a combination of simple blacklists of banned words and teams of manual reviewers. Those still play a role, but large companies such as Tencent now have more powerful automation to help identify what to block. Tencent’s WeChat, which dominates mobile life in China, has an app with a built-in censorship system that can scan for a blacklist of sensitive images.

The fast unraveling of the world’s most important trade relationship has left companies and governments around the world scrambling. While already difficult for Chinese-U.S. relations, the sudden ban on Huawei last month caught many by surprise, raising the stakes by striking at the heart of China’s long-term technological ambitions. The United States has accused Huawei of stealing trade secrets and conducting surveillance on behalf of Beijing.

Sources:  PasteThe New York TimesThe VergeWired

Photo by YIYUN GE on Unsplash