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While our tech giants lecture us on privacy, Apple kow-tows out to China
Apple's Tim Cook meets Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang (Photo by Xinhua/Sipa USA)

Remember when – in one of the biggest tech stories of last year – Apple fought off an FBI demand to break into a terrorist’s iPhone?1

Just a few months later hardly anyone noticed as they caved without a whimper to Chinese dictator Xi’s demand that they help censor the Chinese internet. After a nudge from Beijing, 60 apps that Chinese citizens had been using to get to the real internet were deleted. Those apps were VPNs – “virtual personal networks.” VPNs have long been the key to getting through the “great firewall” to the actual internet – not just the censored version of it that the government wants its citizens to see.

No need to guess what Apple had to say when asked to explain their actions. They were just following orders! China wanted the VPNs to be dumped, so dumped they were. As if this were some kind of technicality.

Yet as the website TechCrunch notes2, by its compliant action Apple dealt a major blow to freedom:

“Apple may believe it is best for its business to co-operate with requests from Beijing, but this App Store purge just created one of the biggest setbacks for the free internet in China’s history.”

Apple’s willing collaboration with Beijing is plainly handy for the Chinese government. They don’t want confrontations with major western companies if they can be avoided. Apple wants to be Beijing’s friend. Everyone’s happy. Well, the dictator and the mega-corporation are…

“Going direct to Apple is becoming an effective way to enforce censorship since the US firm controls what apps are available in China. The tactic proved successful for China earlier this year when Apple removed the New York Times app from the local Chinese App Store. The Times and Wall Street Journal are among a number of international news sites blocked in China.”

There is an alternative

Cambridge University Press, the world’s oldest publisher, walked a higher path earlier this year. It received a “clear order” from Beijing to remove 300 scholarly articles from its website3. They touched on issues considered sensitive by the Chinese authorities – chief among them, the Tiananmen Square massacre. And the Press duly removed them, apparently without consulting either the editor of the journal concerned – China Quarterly – or their bosses in the University of Cambridge, which owns the publishing house.

Hong Kong protest on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. An unknown number of peaceful protesters were killed (estimates varying from the hundreds to the thousands) when Deng Xiaoping mobilised 300,000 troops to suppress student-led calls for democracy in 1989. (Photo from 2014, Getty)

A furore erupted around the world, and it wasn’t long before the University over-ruled the craven publishing leaders. Not only were the 300 offending articles restored, they were made available for free access. “Cambridge University also announced its rejection of China’s censorship demands in a Chinese-language post on its official account on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter. ‘Academic freedom is the overriding principle on which the University of Cambridge is based,’ it said.” (This post disappeared a few hours later, taken down by the censors themselves.)

It’s possible of course that Beijing could decide to ban CUP altogether, or even take some action against Cambridge University itself. Just as it might have decided to lock Apple out. The University’s push-back raised the stakes for the authoritarian regime – and set an example that makes Apple’s capitulation look particularly bad.4

Is it too much to ask western companies to refuse to co-operate with blatant censorship? Apparently, it is.

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SOMETHING TO WATCH FROM EARLIER IN THE WEEK: Watch Steve Hilton’s acerbic commentary on Apple’s Tim Cook lecturing us on his company’s mission to change the world.