For almost two months, the FreeWeibo app offered readers an uncensored version of China’s most popular social media network, Sina Weibo. Thanks to a smart technological workaround, developed by Chinese cyber-activists and Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW), government censors had no way to block the app. Except by pressuring Apple to remove it for them. On November 28, Apple complied.
“This is very, very frustrating,” says Charlie Smith, co-founder of FreeWeibo, a collective of activists against internet censorship. The app was the group's latest attempt to provide Chinese people access to the messages censored on Weibo, without requiring them to use circumvention tools to get over the Great Firewall.
FreeWeibo has been monitoring and documenting Weibo’s censored messages for over a year on FreeWeibo.com. The site is a treasure trove for researchers, journalists and curious citizens who want to find out what Chinese are really discussing online. But unsurprisingly, the site was quickly blocked in China.
The block was no reason for FreeWeibo to give up on its anti-censorship campaign. Together with RNW, which considers the FreeWeibo app a valuable forum for free speech, the activists developed a more censorship-resistant app to publish blocked Weibo tweets.
The app went live on October 4, and after FreeWeibo successfully fended off a few initial attacks, the censors halted their attempts to frustrate the app’s functioning. FreeWeibo seemed to have exhausted the censors’ methods. The only way that they could block the app was by shutting down China’s access to the App store completely, the activists believed.
But to FreeWeibo’s surprise, the next counterattack didn’t come from the censors. Instead, Apple abruptly brought the cat-and-mouse game between the censors and FreeWeibo to a halt by removing the app from the store.
“We felt quite good about getting around the Chinese censors,” the pseudonymous Smith commented. “So when we found Apple pulled it, that was a real downer. It’s the worst kind of censorship we can face, because there’s not much we can do to counteract it.”
A matter between China and RNW?
In a notice sent to RNW, which hosts the app on its account, Apple wrote it had removed the app from the Chinese App store “because it includes content that is illegal in China, which is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines.”
RNW’s editor-in-chief, William Valkenburg, asked Apple to clarify which law it believes the app offends, and on what legal procedure Apple bases this judgment. On Tuesday, he received a phone call from Apple’s App Review board. Valkenburg: “All they stated was that they had received a request from Chinese authorities to remove the app from the Chinese store because it goes against local laws, and that they consider this a matter between the Chinese authorities and RNW.”
Apple states in its rules for developers that apps “must comply with all legal requirements in any location where they are made available to users. It is the developer’s obligation to understand and conform to all local laws.” The guidelines also state: “We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book.”
How FreeWeibo beats the censors
FreeWeibo has caused great excitement by creating censor-proof apps and sites. But their technology is based on a surprisingly simple concept: seek shelter under the wings of online companies that China cannot afford to shut out.
This is how it works: companies like Amazon and Google have large cloud infrastructures that can be used to host websites. For example, Amazon provides services to companies like Pinterest and Instagram. Many of Amazon’s clients are companies of vital economic interest to China. Because Amazon provides all of its services over a secure connection (https), China can only choose to censor every website that depends on Amazon’s services, or none at all.
A simple request to Apple might get an app removed from the Chinese App store, but FreeWeibo believes that pressuring Amazon to take down sites will be much more difficult: if Amazon were to pull FreeWeibo’s mirror site per China’s request, it would also go down everywhere else in the world. That means Amazon would have to commit worldwide censorship solely for the sake of the concerns of China’s authorities—probably a bridge too far.
By upholding these guidelines, Apple makes it impossible for apps concerned with issues such as free speech or human rights to find a home in the Chinese App store, especially because a phone call from authorities is considered sufficient proof to Apple that certain apps offend local law. Earlier this year, an app that displays banned books on Tibet was removed, as well as a censorship circumvention tool and other apps that touched on sensitive subjects.
Apple’s response to the request of Chinese authorities is “similar to other businesses active in the China market,” says Isaac Mao, a social media researcher and well-known Chinese blogger who also sits on FreeWeibo’s advisory board. “All the businesses understand the immediate price they could pay, so normally they will sacrifice [the interest of] the customer, or developers in this case,” he says. “It’s a common practice, unfortunately.”
Charlie Smith does see a silver lining to the app’s removal: “The case helps shine a light on Apple’s opaque censorship guidelines,” he says. With past app removals, “We never really knew how Apple’s decision was made,” Smith says.
“In this case we can clearly see that in the first instance Apple did not have the intention to remove it at all,” Smith explains. “They accepted us into the Chinese App store, as well as our subsequent updates. It was only when Chinese censors couldn’t take the app down that Apple was asked to remove it. We can trace the removal to a direct request from Chinese authorities.”
In any case, FreeWeibo is not dwelling on the loss of their app. It has just launched a special mirror site of FreeWeibo.com that is freely accessible to internet users in China without circumvention tools.
FreeWeibo also recently made headlines by creating a similar “unblockable” mirror site for Reuters, after the international news agency's site was blocked in China. It has also proposed offering the same service to other websites that are currently inaccessible in China.
The group is also currently developing an Android app. “The reason we originally chose Apple was because we figured that Apple is the kind of company that would support our goals. But we’ve got plenty of other places to go,” Smith says. “This is definitely not the end of the story.”