Anti-government protests erupted in several Chinese cities and on college campuses over the weekend. But the country’s most widespread display of public dissent in decades will have to go without a crucial communications tool, as Apple restricted its use in China earlier this month.
AirDrop, the file sharing feature on iPhones and other Apple devices, has helped the protesters in many authoritarian countries escape censorship. Indeed, AirDrop relies on direct connections between phones, forming a local network of devices that do not need the Internet to communicate. People can choose to receive AirDrops from anyone else with an iPhone nearby.
That changed on November 9, when Apple released a new version of its mobile operating system, iOS 16.1.1, to customers around the world. Rather than listing new features, as is often the case, the company just say“This update includes bug fixes and security updates and is recommended for all users.”
Hidden in the update was a change that only applies to iPhones sold in mainland China: AirDrop can only be set to receive messages from everyone for 10 minutes, before shutting down. There’s no longer a way to keep the “everyone” setting permanently enabled on Chinese iPhones. Change, noticed for the first time by Chinese 9to5Mac readers, does not apply anywhere else.
AirDrop has been an effective communication tool for protesters in Hong Kong, as previously documented Quartz. It was used to communicate with other protesters, reach passers-by and deliver messages to mainland Chinese tourists visiting Hong Kong. On the mainland, protesters have also been posting AirDropped protest literature, particularly on college campuses where some of the current protests have erupted. China’s control over the internet has grown so strong that dissidents have to cling to any cracks in the so-called Great Firewall.
Apple did not respond to questions about the AirDrop change. He plans to make the “Everyone for 10 minutes” feature a global standard next year. according to Bloomberg. AirDrops can indeed be a nuisance in normal settings: if you choose to receive files from everyone and don’t turn it off, you may end up receiving unwanted memes or worse.
But why did Apple rush into the change unannounced, in an unassuming iOS update in early November, and only apply it to Chinese iPhones? A clue may lie in what happened the previous month, when Xi Jinping’s nomination for a third term as Chinese leader was welcomed. rare displays of public dissent.
In the most visible demonstration, a dissident now known as the Bridge Man lit a fire on a bridge in Beijing to draw attention to his protest banners. One said, “Strike at school and at work, fire the dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping. References to the banners were quickly censored on the Chinese internet, but the photos still made their way through private channels. Vice reported that Bridge Man’s messages were spread in the shanghai metro via Air Drop.
Although Apple has sought to reduce dependence on Chinese manufacturing, its market share with Chinese consumers is increasing: 16% of smartphone shipments in China last quarter were iPhones, compared to 11% a year ago, according to market research firm Canalys. (Vivo, a Chinese company, is the market leader, with 20% of smartphone shipments.)
Apple has repeatedly helped China control dissent, primarily by removing apps used by protesters to coordinate, communicate, or gather information. (The Quartz iOS app was removed by Appleat the request of China, at the height of the 2019 protests in Hong Kong.) By blocking the functionality of AirDrop in China, Apple is once again coming to the aid of the government.