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Apple extends Chinese censorship to Hong Kong users

Hong Kong skyline

Hong Kong Apple users claim Safari briefly blocked global code site GitLab, seemingly because it's blacklisted by Chinese-owned Tencent.

Safari aims to protect users from websites that may contain malware or other issues, and it does so by using blacklists of problematic sites. Those lists are maintained either by Google Safe Browsing, or China's Tencent Safe Browsing — and it's Tencent that is the issue.

Apple has long used Tencent when a device's region is set to mainland China. Apple's use of a Chinese-owned firm has been controversial, but it was specifically limited to China.

According to The Intercept, however, Apple appears to now be using Tencent's blacklist for devices registered in Hong Kong, too. Hong Kong is a city in South China, but its users have not previously been subjected to mainland China's censorship.

Tweeter Chu Ka-cheong is a former Apple employee and software engineer. He tweeted that access to GitLab was being blocked by Safari for purportedly containing dangerous "unverified information."

A current Apple engineer responded to the tweet, saying that the issue would be looked into. GitLab access was subsequently restored, but reportedly, there has been no further response from Apple.

The Intercept reports that Apple spokesperson Nadine Haija would only direct them to asking Tencent. In its turn, Tencent declined to comment.

However, at some point after November 24, 2022, Apple's Safari privacy notice was updated to say that the Tencent list would be used for devices in Hong Kong too. Haija would not comment on when or why Apple expanded its use of Tencent.

"Presumably people purchase Apple devices because they believe the company when they say that 'privacy is a fundamental human right,' Charlie Smith of Chinese censorship advocacy group GreatFire, told the publication. "What they fail to add is 'except if you are Chinese.'"

As a Chinese company, Tencent is unsurprisingly bound to follow China's rules.

"The aspect which we should be surprised by and con-cerned about is Apple's decision to work with Tencent in the first place to filter URLs for Apple's Hong Kong users," said Jeffrey Knockel of the University of Toronto's digital security watchdog group. "[Other] North American tech companies have resisted Hong Kong's demands to subject Hong Kong users to China-based filtering."

It's not known why GitLab was added to Tencent's list of "unverified information" sites. It's also not known whether Apple is behind the block on GitLab being lifted.

Apple has previously been accused of bowing to authoritarian regimes. Tim Cook has previously discussed China's censorship issues with the US government.