Apple’s engraving service will not allow references to landmark political events and activist movements in certain countries, a team of researchers have found.
CitizenLab, human rights and technology researchers at the University of Toronto say that 1,045 keywords are blocked in Apple’s Chinese stores. Meanwhile 542 keywords in Hong Kong and 397 in Taiwan are blocked, they say.
“Within mainland China, we found that Apple censors political content, including broad references to the Chinese leadership and China’s political system, names of dissidents and independent news organizations, and general terms relating to religions, democracy, and human rights,” wrote CitizenLab researchers Jeffrey Knockel and Lotus Ruan.
In China, for instance, the engraving “8964,” a reference to the Tiananmen Square protests on June 4, 1989, was not allowed. The Chinese phrase “最高領導人,” or “The Highest Leader,” a reference to Chinese President Xi Jinping, was disallowed in Taiwan.
The researchers found that phrases referencing the 2014 Umbrella Revolution and the city’s pro-democracy movement also faced blanket censorship from Apple’s engraving service.
“We found that part of Apple’s mainland China political censorship bleeds into both Hong Kong and Taiwan. Much of this censorship exceeds Apple’s legal obligations in Hong Kong, and we are aware of no legal justification for the political censorship of content in Taiwan,” Knockel and Ruan wrote.
The researchers also checked keywords in Japan, Canada, and the US. They found that Apple engraving services within those countries prohibited between 170 to 206 keywords, mostly racist and sexist ones.
In a letter dates 17 August, Jane Horvath, Apple’s chief privacy officer, responded to CitizenLab’s researchers.
In the letter, Horvath said Apple is “glad to offer customers the opportunity to express themselves,” but added that the company has guidelines to ensure “local laws and customs are respected and adhered to in every country and region where we operate.”
“We try to not allow requests which could represent trademark or intellectual property violations, are vulgar or culturally insensitive, could be construed as inciting violence, or would be considered illegal according to local laws, rules, and regulations of the countries and regions where we personalize and where we ship,” Horvath added.
She said that Apple handles engraving requests “regionally” and that there is no single “global list” of prohibited words and phrases.
“Instead, these decisions are made through a review process where our teams assess local laws as well as their assessment of cultural sensitivities. We revisit these decisions from time to time,” Horvath said. “While those teams rely on information from a range of sources, no third parties or government agencies have been involved in the process.”