Apple restricted a crucial tool of dissent in China weeks before widespread protests broke out. Over the weekend, anti-government protests flared in several cities in China and on college campuses.
It marks the country’s most widespread show of public dissent in decades.
But now, the protests will have to manage without a crucial communication tool: Apple’s AirDrop. Earlier in November, Apple restricted the use of AirDrop in China.
AirDrop is the file-sharing feature on iPhones and other Apple devices in which photos, files, and anything can be sent from one phone to another through Bluetooth. AirDrop relies on direct connections between phones, forming a local network of devices that don’t need the internet to communicate. People can opt into receiving AirDrops from anyone else with an iPhone nearby.
AirDrop has helped protestors in many authoritarian countries evade censorship.
On Nov. 9, Apple released a new operating system, iOS 16.1.1. That update in China contained a hidden adjustment only for iPhones sold in mainland China: AirDrop can only be set to receive messages from everyone for 10 minutes before switching off.
This change has not been applied anywhere else besides China. Users not in China face no such restriction and are able to receive files wirelessly from anyone, including people who are not contacts.
The change happened after AirDrop was being used to spread leaflets and images echoing slogans used in a rare protest against Chinese leader Xi Jinping on October 13.
On that day, shortly before Xi secured a precedent-breaking third term, two banners were hung on an overpass of a major thoroughfare in the northwest of Beijing, protesting against Xi’s zero-Covid policy and authoritarian rule.
Apple has repeatedly helped China control dissent, mostly by removing apps that protestors have used to coordinate, communicate, or gather information.