Apple is reported to have deactivated its news app in China amid concerns that Beijing is escalating its campaign to restrict the flow of information from U.S. news outlets and technology companies.
The New York Times reported that, even for users who downloaded the app on their phones in the United States, content does not appear in China. Instead, the error message "news isn’t supported in your current region" appears.
Beijing requires most companies operating in the country to develop a censorship system, which can include automated software and designated workers, to block sensitive content. By disabling the app, Apple appears to be signaling that it has not yet committed to implementing such a system.
Apple’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.
Apple, which earned more than $13 billion in sales from China in the last quarter, is likely keeping a close watch on the censorship regulations that compose Beijing’s so-called "Great Firewall" against restricted information online. U.S. technology firms have lost billions of dollars in potential revenue from website blockages and other restrictions, including demands that the companies provide user data and intellectual property to the government.
Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst for Freedom House, wrote in an online post earlier this year that Beijing has heightened its efforts to crack down on U.S. companies and curtail the free flow of information.
"Pressure on foreign media companies and harassment of their correspondents—especially via website blocks, visa delays, and de facto expulsions—has increased over the past seven years, following a brief period of relaxation surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympics," she wrote. "Moreover, virtually any U.S. firm operating any information service or website that is accessible to Chinese users faces pressure to implement Communist Party surveillance and censorship directives. Those who refuse risk being shut out of the world’s largest web market."
U.S. companies have taken different approaches to China’s expanding censorship regime. Google decided in 2010 to shut down its Internet search service in the country in response to the strict requirements, though it continued some of its other services.
LinkedIn, by contrast, acceded to some of Beijing’s demands and is reported to have censored articles last June about the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, which were brutally suppressed by the Chinese military in 1989. Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, told the Wall Street Journal last February that compromises would have to be made to operate in China.
"We are strongly in support of freedom of expression and we are opposed to censorship but recognize that in order to obtain a license [in China], there will be requests to filter content and that’s going to be necessary for us to achieve the kind of scale that we’d like," he said.
Bloomberg News, which previously published investigative reports about the family wealth of Chinese President Xi Jinping, appeared to abstain from reporting critical of the Communist Party after government-linked companies stopped buying their terminals, Bloomberg’s chief revenue generator. Beijing has also denied residency visas to news reporters for Bloomberg and the Times.
Xi has only intensified the government’s crackdown against freedom of expression since he rose to power in 2012, Cook wrote in her post. The new measures include more blockages of U.S. websites and services that were previously accessible, the targeting of cloud services such as Dropbox that store and share data, massive cyber attacks against programs that circumvent Chinese censorship, and draft legislation that would make U.S. companies and civil society groups vulnerable to surveillance.
While Beijing often claims that it heavily regulates online activity to protect against foreign threats, Cook said the evidence suggests that the government has other concerns in mind.
"Rigorous research has repeatedly shown that the content targeted for censorship in China most often relates to critically important topics like official corruption, police brutality, religious persecution, ethnic relations, and public health," she said. "Many measures also serve to ensure Communist Party control over key nodes in the information flow, regardless of what is being communicated."