Apple: Still kowtowing to Chinese censorship

Apple has worked for years to build a company image as freedom-loving and iconoclastic. But the truth is far darker: Apple is cooperating with the Chinese government to ban iPhone applications in China related to the Dalai Lama and Uighur activist Rebiya Kandeer, even though it once highlighted the Dalai Lama in its "Think Different" campaign. One word describes Apple's behavior: hypocritical.

Apple has labored for decades --- and spent millions of dollars --- to associate its brand with free-thinking individualism. Back in 1984, Apple paid for a Superbowl ad that portrayed minions of drones in thrall to a Big Brother figure on a giant screen. A heroine destroys the screen by throwing a hammer at it, and a voice-over announces "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984." The implication was clear: Use a Mac and be freed from intellectual tyranny and the Thought Police. Apple portrayed itself on the side of freedom and free-thinking.

That theme continued through the years, notably with a "Think Different" campaign in 1997. Here's the text from the first ads, which link using Apple products to world-changing free-thinkers such as Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lennon, and, ironically, the Dalai Lama.

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Fast forward to today. Here's what the New York Times notes about the iTunes service in China:

Apple's iTunes service still forbids Chinese users from downloading certain applications that refer to the Dalai Lama and the Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer.

The Dalai Lama and Rebiya Kadeer are certainly "rebels," "troublemakers" for China, and "round pegs in the square holes." And they decidedly "push the human race forward."

In fact, as part of the "Think Different" campaign, Apple used a photo of the Dalai Lama to hype its products --- you can see the picture below. (Thanks to Seth Weintraub for digging this up.) But that was then; this is now.

Dalai Lama Think Different

In China you won't be able to download iPhone applications that mention either the Dalai Lama or Rebiya Kadeer. Macworld writes in December that:

At least five iPhone apps related to the Dalai Lama are unavailable in the China store. Some of those apps --- named Dalai Quotes, Dalai Lama Quotes, and Dalai Lama Prayerwheel --- display inspirational quotes from the Tibetan spiritual leader. Another, Paging Dalai Lama, tells users where he is currently teaching. A fifth app, Nobel Laureates, contains information about Nobel Prize winners including the Dalai Lama.

Macworld goes on to say:

Kadeer, an exiled leader of China’s Uighur minority group, gets similar treatment by Chinese officials and state media. An iPhone app named 10 Conditions, based on a documentary about her life, also did not appear in test searches of the App Store in China.

In addition, according to Macworld,

Searching the App Store for "Falun Gong," the name of a spiritual sect banned in China as a cult, caused iPhones in the Beijing Apple Store to display a results loading screen indefinitely, though no Falun Gong apps appear to be offered in any countries. In contrast, searches for other terms quickly returned a results page.

What is Apple's response to the hypocrisy? Trudy Muller told Macworld in an email:

"We continue to comply with local laws. Not all apps are available in every country."

If Apple were to shoot the 1984 Superbowl ad today, and make it an honest one, it wouldn't show a heroine destroying the screen of Big Brother. Instead, there would be no heroine and Big Brother would happily have an iPhone in hand.

Apple, of course, isn't the only tech company to kowtow to Chinese censors. Microsoft's Bing search engine does as well. I've previously written that it's time for Microsoft to follow Google's lead and drop censorship in China. And Apple should do the same.


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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