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Apple censors engraving service, report claims (bbc.co.uk)
98 points by unfunco on Aug 18, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 41 comments

Wow, this was not what I was expecting when I originally read the headline.

Initially I assumed it was just a pile-on media outrage about Apple, thinking "how is it surprising, pretty much every engraving service bans certain things that are either vulgar or trademark infringing". Reading the article scrapped all of those presumptions I had.

For those who want quick numbers from the article, here is the table showing the number of terms banned in each relevant region for engraving:

* 1,045 keywords blocked in mainland China

* 542 in Hong Kong

* 397 in Taiwan

* Japan, Canada and the US had between 170 and 260 filtered words

The most egregious example imo was the one banning engraving "8964" (literally just a 4-digit number), because it references the date of Tiananmen Square Massacre. Not the name of a politician or some living person. Just a date that is being forcefully attempted to get erased from history.

I mean, not sure what you expected -- it's China.

This is not really news... any company operating in China follows what the government requires (whether explicitly or implicitly), and censoring Tiananman is top of list.

I don't see any outrage to direct towards Apple here. Direct it towards China. Unless you think every company in the Western world (not just Apple) ought to cease doing any and all business with China, both in manufacturing and sales. Because I don't see anything here that Apple does that other Western companies operating in China don't.

The outrage directed at Apple might be coming from this quote from their Chief Privacy Officer "no third parties or government agencies have been involved in the process."

Why lie?

Let me preface this first by saying that I find this entire situation to be abhorrent, and that reply by Apple's Chief Privacy Officer to be useless at best and poor at worst. However, there is a significant case for why it might not be a lie (not that it makes that statement any better, but that's beside the point).

If you look at the original source material[0] (which is a really interesting piece to read in full in general) instead of the article about it in the OP , it tries to understand the situation in much more detail than the BBC report.

And their reasonable conclusion was that Apple just grabbed that random list from somewhere or reverse engineered it from some other product, because it contains some terms in chinese that are plain weird or have no explanation, such as 5 different random names with the last name "Zhang".

The part about Canadian vs. US banlist was fairly interesting too, in terms of how The Citizen Lab analyzed the whole thing. Overall, I would count that report as a must-read. It is way more interesting and comprehensive than the BBC article about it. Not even mentioning that it goes really deep into the methodology of how the conclusions were arrived at and how those banlists were reverse-engineered.

0. https://citizenlab.ca/2021/08/engrave-danger-an-analysis-of-...

P.S. I wish this thread was linking to the source material aka full analysis post by The Citizen Lab instead of the barebones and weak BBC article about it. It covers way more ground than just what's mentioned in the BBC article. And it is the primary source, after all.

I found it interesting that only ~1k of the ~500k banned words from WeChat were also censored in this engraving UI.

I take this as "We complied with the law/guidlines before being prosecuted".

It puts the lotion on its skin or it gets the hose again.

> Unless you think every company in the Western world (not just Apple) ought to cease doing any and all business with China

Well, yes, we're forbidden from doing business with Iran, North Korea, etc. because they're morally abhorrent or whatever - Is China just "too big to fail?"

>Is China just "too big to fail?"

Kind of, yes.

China is "Most Favored Nation" in (Bill) Clinton-era diplomacy.

> Unless you think every company in the Western world (not just Apple) ought to cease doing any and all business with China

Yes. China very clearly doesn't care what the West thinks about them. They would probably care if Apple stopped manufacturing and selling iPhones there. Economic pressure is the only pressure we can reasonably appt.

Of course they (CCP) care. Their feelings are deeply hurt every time anyone in the West mentions the crimes of their authoritarian government


I should praise Google a bit for this perspective.

> I mean, not sure what you expected -- it's China.

It's Apple. They have confirmed it themselves that China didn't put this pressure on them.

> The most egregious example imo was the one banning engraving "8964" (literally just a 4-digit number)

Nah, Apple should just ban all four digit numbers so people don’t engrave their passcodes, because the sticky note kept falling off. The most egregious example to me was censoring a random common surname, Zhang.

> The most egregious example imo was the one banning engraving "8964" (literally just a 4-digit number)

I have not found the full list for EU/USA but I suspect that 1488 might be censored in those regions.

Looking at the other examples it seems to me that in communist states the anti-communist words are censored, and in democratic states, it’s the anti-democratic ones. In the communist state, the state provides the naughty list, while in the democratic states, the demos does, but in the end both systems censor in their own ways the expression of the symbols of the most feared opposition movements

The full list[0] of terms banned in the US is in the official Citizen Lab repo. There isn't a single number on that list, so no, 1488 isn't censored.

>in communist states the anti-communist words are censored, and in democratic states, it’s the anti-democratic ones

I guess we can add to that list of anti-communist words things as 人权 (human rights) and 新聞自由 (Freedom of the press), because those are banned by Apple for engravings in China too[1].

Then look at the words banned in the US, for comparison. None of those are "anti-democratic" or even related to politics, it is all just vulgarity-related words, such as words referring to genitalia or expletives.

To be fair, I have to revise my earlier statement about "8964" being the most egregious example. I posted that comment before I noticed 人权 (human rights) on that list.

0. https://github.com/citizenlab/chat-censorship/blob/master/ap...

1. https://github.com/citizenlab/chat-censorship/blob/master/ap...

Erased - by Apple themselves

"Replying to the group, Ms Horvath said Apple's rules depended on the region - and "no third parties or government agencies have been involved in the process."

Nothing to see here says Apple's Chief Privacy officer Jane Horvath

I have zero idea what their Chief Privacy Officer was trying to achieve with that statement. If they think that makes them look better, that's a pretty wild assumption on their end. In my eyes, even if we take that statement as truth, it makes them look even worse off than not saying it at all.

Look better to who? Customers in the west or the Chinese government?

It does have a bend the knee feel to me. "Acknowledge we are controlling you without saying we're controlling you".

This can still be the case that the CCP simply has a "recommendation list" and companies are expected to comply and self-censor.

>if the engraving resembles SQL content (e.g., “; DELETE FROM”) ... then the API crashes and returns an HTTP 403 code and an HTML error page as opposed to the expected JSON response

Poor Bobby Tables can't even get his name on his phone.

Missing a lot of ethnic slurs but Dr. Assman is safe for now.

"It found:

    1,045 keywords blocked in mainland China
    542 in Hong Kong
    397 in Taiwan
In contrast, Japan, Canada and the US had between 170 and 260 filtered words."

A bit unrelated, but I find interesting that keywords are "blocked" in China and "filtered" in Japan/Canada/US.

I wouldn't read into blocked vs filtered. The report itself doesn't differentiate. This is just a BBC journalist trying to use varied vocabulary which is nicer to read.

or, it's a BBC editor ensuring that china 'blocks' and the west 'filters' because that matches editorial policy.

for all we know the original text from the journalist could say 'remove' in both places - without context, we don't really know.

>... that matches editorial policy.

Can you please link us to their editorial policy that you're using as a source for this? For all we know this could just be an entirely speculative, biased asserition on your part - without context, we don't really know.

I had a look at the lists (hosted on Github, sourced from another post here). On the surface, the lists for China, HK, and TW are longer. But if we consider that these lists contain both English filters and their counterparts in Asian languages, by design they will be much longer.

For example, US is listed as 170 filters. You can see the majority of them in the HK list + their translations in Cantonese + specific terms for HK.

In China, where at least 5 "languages" are covered, including traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, Japanese, rhymes, and pinyin, the 1,045 (6 times more than US' 170) does not seem excessive at all.

(Edit: corrected filter counts)

Some of the words Apple filters in China include 人权 (human rights), 正法 (dharma), 達賴 (Dalai [Lama]), 新聞自由 (Freedom of the press), and 艾未未 (Ai Weiwei [an artist and political dissident]). [1] There is no equivalent to these kinds of words in the US filter.

[1] https://citizenlab.ca/2021/08/engrave-danger-an-analysis-of-...

It isn't just about the languages. Check some words in english present on the list of strings banned in China that aren't present on the list of strings banned in the US.

Also, I have no idea where you got the 260 number for the US. Here is the official CitizenLab repo link[0] to the US list, it contains only 170 terms.

0. https://github.com/citizenlab/chat-censorship/blob/master/ap...

As long as there are filtered words in the US no one can claim the higher moral ground here.

Ah yes, because Apple in the US filters words that fall under an enforced trademark or under vulgarity just like most "custom engraving/writing" services do, it means that the US cannot claim moral ground over a regime filtering strings related to historical events or politics.

US would lose its moral high ground on this one when Apple stops allowing people to reference US politics or dates of historical events in their engravings. Which is not something that is the case now, and I do not foresee it becoming the case anytime soon.

Check the list of words that are banned for engravings in the US here[0] and then compare it to the list of words that are banned in China[1]. Note how pretty much every single word banned in the US is either a racial slur or something vulgar. While the Chinese banlist (in addition to the list of all the ones included in the US) features gems such as "STANDWITHHONGKONG" and "XIJINPING" and "8964".

0. https://github.com/citizenlab/chat-censorship/blob/master/ap...

1. https://github.com/citizenlab/chat-censorship/blob/master/ap...

> "As with everything at Apple, the process for engraving is led by our values," chief privacy officer Jane Horvath wrote in a letter provided to CitizenLab

If you had any doubt about Apple's values.

This is really hyperbolic — "engraving" in this context means words Apple will etch into your device when you buy it (see https://www.apple.com/shop/engraving-and-gift-wrap). We're really going to act like it's censorship because Apple won't write certain words on the back of your iPhone?

It isn't about them not allowing certain words, it is about which specific words they aren't allowing.

Afaik, they had restrictions on it since the feature was introduced. It was mostly just restricting vulgarity and trademarked stuff (just like with all products that allow customizable strings, e.g., you cannot buy custom adidas shoes that have customized text saying "NIKE" on them or "FUCK", but you can put "abcdef" or your name or whatever other random string you want).

What this is actually about is which specific strings they are banning this time. And while restricting vulgarity or trademarked stuff makes sense, I think it is reasonable for people to consider it censorship when a number (8964) used to reference the date of a historical event gets banned simply because CCP doesn't like their citizens to remember that date.

That scenario above sounds like proper censorship to me, as opposed to simply blocking trademarked stuff.

If you really want 8964 on your iPhone, just find an engraving service and get them to do it for you? There are thousands of them on Etsy; I'm sure there are plenty in China too.

Frankly, calling this censorship just seems like a category error to me. We're talking about one company not selling you a thing — even though thousands of other companies who will ostensibly gladly sell you that same thing! We need to stop defining censorship as "any time I can't force someone to do something I want".

It isn't about them not letting me engrave whatever I want.

If Apple said "sorry, we cannot engrave 8964 because we don't allow strings that are shorter than 5 characters" that's one story.

But Apple essentially says "sure, we can engrave 8964, but only as long as you are not a customer residing in China, because eeeeh reasons. Please pick another 4-digit number instead.". That's pretty telling.

They are also banning "STANDWITHHONGKONG" as well. I would have no problems with that if Apple came out and said "we don't support the ongoing free Hong Kong movement, because we are on the side of CCP in this situation, so we won't engrave it". But guess what? They won't do that. And what about 人权 (human rights) and 新聞自由 (Freedom of the press) being on that banlist as well?

And don't try to bring up the "muslim bakery refuses to make that specific gay-themed cake for a couple" incident. In their case, it makes sense. The bakery owners agreed to make the cake for the couple, as long as it isn't gay-themed, because homosexuality is against their religious beliefs, and the bakery owners have openly stated so. How about Apple actually having the decency to do the same? If Apple refuses to make those engravings, sure, but Apple should explain to us where they stand on this issue in the open then.

Tell us how your dictionary defines "censor"

Ah yes thank you for defining engraving, but I don't think anyone had mistaken this for anything else.

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