Four numbers that Apple won’t let you engrave on your iPhone in China


Apple censors words and phrases that customers can engrave on products in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. CitizenLab in Brussels. The iPhone maker has always said it will filter engraving requests to avoid racist language, vulgarity or intellectual property infringement, but CitizenLab says the restrictions on the company’s political references in Hong Kong and Taiwan in particular go beyond legal requirements.

“We found that part of Apple’s mainland China’s political censorship is leaking to both Hong Kong and Taiwan,” write the report authors. “Much of this censorship goes beyond Apple’s statutory obligations in Hong Kong, and we are not aware of any legal justification for political censorship of Taiwanese content.”

Apple does not provide a complete list of prohibited phrases by region, but CitizenLab’s analysis shows the company is filtering 1,045 keywords in China, compared to 542 in Hong Kong, 397 in Taiwan, 206 in Canada, 192 in Japan and 170 in the United States. Although no political phrases are filtered in the U.S., Canada, or Japan, nearly half of the keywords blocked in China and Hong Kong were political in nature. CitizenLab’s analysis looked specifically at engraving requests from AirTags and iPads, but the only differences it noticed in product restrictions were related to keyword length and lowercase letters.

Comparison of filtered keywords by type and region.
Picture: CitizenLab

In China, the filtered keywords are 政治 (politics), 抵制 (opposition), 民主 潮 (wave of democracy), and 人权 (human rights). For four-character AirTag engravings, Chinese customers are not allowed to use the four numbers 8964 – which refer to the June 4, 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

CitizenLab says the strict censorship applied in mainland China is spreading to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Hong Kong is a “special administrative region” of China that has enjoyed a high degree of political independence, despite China’s curbing of its democratic movements in recent months and years. Taiwan is a self-governing democracy that China sees as a detached state that should unite with the mainland.

The phrases prohibited in Hong Kong are 雙 普選 (double universal suffrage), 雨伞 革命 (Umbrella Revolution) and 新聞自由 (freedom of the press). In Taiwan, Apple customers are not allowed to refer to high-level members of the Chinese Communist Party, such as 孫春蘭 (Sun Chunlan) or the banned religious movement 法輪功 (Falun Gong).

8964: reference to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations on June 4, 1989.
Picture: CitizenLab

CitizenLab notes that “Apple has no legal obligation to conduct such political censorship in Taiwan.” But Apple has repeatedly shown that it is making political commitments to maintain its presence in China, which accounts for nearly a fifth of its total revenue.

The degree to which Apple is prepared to succumb to Chinese pressure has become particularly sensitive in recent weeks after the iPhone maker revealed the controversial system detect CSAM (Child Sexual Exploitation Material) on its devices. The system searches for illegal material locally on users ’phones, but critics fear it will be possible expanded beyond CSAM to detect other forms of illegal content. In China, this may include expressing political disagreement.

Apple responded to the analysis wrote CitizenLab, saying it filters engraving requests according to “local laws, rules and regulations.” It did not respond to criticism that it was too zealous in its censorship in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

“We handle engraving requests regionally. There is no single global list that includes a single word or set of phrases, ”said Jane Horvath, Apple’s chief privacy officer, in a letter. “Instead, these decisions are made through a review process in which our teams evaluate local laws as well as their cultural assessments.”

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