How far is Apple willing to go to accommodate Beijing?

October 16, 2019 11:39
China is currently Apple’s second-largest market after the United States in terms of revenue contribution. Photo: Reuters

Apple Inc. is known for making enormous efforts to protect its customers' privacy, while its rivals Google and Facebook have been criticized for abusing users' personal data for business purposes.

The iPhone maker's reputation, however, has been challenged recently amid media allegations that the safe-browsing feature of its Safari web browser could actually send users' browsing records to Google and China's Tencent Holdings Ltd. (00700.HK).

Apple quickly moved to allay public concerns about the Safari feature, which can be found in the iOS for iPhones, iPads and Mac computers.

It explained that the Safari Fraudulent Website Warning actually protects users as it identifies websites known to be used by hackers to steal their personal data such as passwords for emails and bank accounts.

“When the feature is enabled, Safari checks the website URL against lists of known websites and displays a warning if the URL the user is visiting is suspected of fraudulent conduct like phishing,” Apple said.

To be able to accomplish its task, the company said, Safari receives a list of websites known to be malicious from Google and, in the case of China, from Tencent.

“The actual URL of a website you visit is never shared with a safe browsing provider and the feature can be turned off,” Apple said.

Apple’s clarification should help to ease users’ concerns about their browsing records being shared with third parties, especially companies from China.

The company maintained that its devices are among the safest in the industry. In fact, it has started introducing features into its Safari browser that are aimed at preventing sites such as Facebook from tracking users across the web.

But business is business. While the administration of US President Donald Trump has been engaging China in a tit-for-tat tariff war, Apple has maintained a friendly, at times accommodating, stance in its dealings with the Asian giant.

Just recently, for example, the US tech giant bowed to pressure from Beijing by removing a controversial app in Hong Kong that is quite useful for anti-government activists as it identifies police presence in areas across the territory.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook said the company decided to remove the app from its App Store after police said protesters were using the app to attack officers.

China is currently Apple’s second-largest market after the United States in terms of revenue contribution.

While the company's lackluster business performance in China has affected its share price, the Asian giant remains a growth engine for phone makers around the world.

Apple's products are facing intensifying competition from local players such as Xiaomi and Huawei. And the US firm can only win back its market share by slashing its prices. In fact, this is the reason why its latest iPhone models were the best sellers during the National Day golden week holiday.

And since it considers China a hugely important market, Apple has been very accommodating to Beijing authorities, including in matters concerning content censorship.

According to some media reports, the company has urged content providers for its Apple TV+ subscription service not to humiliate the Chinese government in their productions.

Apple has also stopped using the Taiwan national flag emoji on its keyboard for products shipped to Hong Kong and mainland China.

And to meet regulatory requirements, it has partnered with a state-owned enterprise for its iCloud storage service in China.

All these initiatives may be for the good of Apple’s business, but they somehow raise the question of how far it is willing to go to accommodate Beijing's political and security interests.

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EJ Insight writer