Tech Companies Didn’t Plan for Chinese Censorship

Tech companies are censoring information about the demonstrations in Hong Kong. Civil liberties experts say this is symptomatic of larger problems.
Protesters in Hong Kong.

Over the past month, Google removed a Hong Kong protest role-playing game from the Google Play store, Blizzard made a gamer forfeit his prize money after voicing support for protesters in Hong Kong, and The Guardian reported that TikTok is removing and delisting content that depicts or describes the protests in Hong Kong.

NBA spectators with pro-Hong Kong signs had those signs confiscated, or, they were kicked out of the game entirely. Rockets owner Daryl Morey deleted and promptly apologized for tweeting his support for the Hong Kong protesters, which has become an international incident. Apple removed the Taiwan flag emoji from Chinese iOS systems, and then removed an app from its Chinese app store that allowed protests in Hong Kong to share the location of authorities, and then doubled down on this decision.


We’ve reached a critical moment. Republican Florida Senator Marco Rubio published a letter calling for the United States to probe TikTok. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden tweeted, "No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck." The popular sentiment in the U.S., across party lines, is one of sympathy for the protestors in Hong Kong and outrage about decisions by tech companies, which appear to undermine these people.

The consensus is that American companies should not censor the demonstrations in Hong Kong, but it’s less clear exactly how we can prevent these companies from engaging in censorship.

Ryan Calo, a professor of digital law and privacy law at the University of Washington School of Law, said that tech companies need to say, clearly and publicly, "when they will engage in censorship, if at all, at the behest of another nation."

“At a minimum, Apple and other tech companies should say publicly the conditions under which they will comply with Chinese or other requests to censor content,” Calo said. “The very act of laying out public criteria manages expectations and forces the company to consider its values.”

Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said that tech companies should conduct human rights assessments before they enter a market in a particular country, not after.

“Companies who operate within China are on notice from the outset that they will be told by the government to censor speech, and need to have plans in place to mitigate the impact of these government demands on users' human rights,” Llansó said. “If a company cannot do so, it should reconsider operating in that country.”


Llansó also said that companies should evaluate their content policies and terms of service in order to ensure they don’t prohibit more speech and expression than necessary. She said that governments will “absolutely” use vague content policies in service of censorship.

“A broadly worded or unclear policy can be used to legitimize any number of takedowns or account deactivations, and it can be hard for companies to stand up to government pressure, particularly in a crisis moment,” Llansóm said.

Danny O'Brien, Director of Strategy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that American legislation targeting tech companies is risky. Legislation, he said, “establishes the norm that it’s ok for governments to use companies as instruments of their own country’s foreign policy.” In other words, an American law would set the standard that it’s ok for a government to set content standards for private companies.

“Which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid in China,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien told Motherboard that there’s two main reasons tech companies are facing ethical quandaries regarding censorship: One, they’ve prioritized global expansion, meaning companies have to account for the political will of the Chinese government and people living in mainland China as well as American political sentiment. Two, many of these companies have created monopolies within their own ecosystems. For instance, it wouldn’t be as much of a problem if Apple removed an app from the iOS app store if there were alternate ways to easily download apps on Apple devices.


This walled garden approach, popularized most obviously by Apple, is a problem in its own right, but issues of censorship have magnified that problem.

“By taking on the singular role of policing its entire system, across multiple countries, Apple has gotten itself into this impossible solution of having to effectively choose whether to censor apps based on popular sentiment in one country, or even one part of a country, against another part of the world,” O'Brien said.

O'Brien said that if tech companies have put themselves in a tough position: they’re responsible for global policing within their ecosystems, and they promise to fix problems on their platforms with more policing.

However, he said, there’s no easy way to devise global standards that account for a global market that aren’t politically contentious.

“What these companies need to do is not to police better or police with a lighter touch. What they need to put the power back to the users so that they themselves can choose,” O'Brien said. “If customers and users were in that position, then these companies wouldn’t be the singular chokepoint with the Chinese government or other governments to silence or interfere with people’s free expression.”

O’Brien suggested that tech companies could theoretically give more power to users by, say, having local, competitive versions of app stores, and allowing users to choose what they download. However, tech companies probably won’t be eager to do this because it would compromise their profits.

“Sometimes doing the right thing has negative consequences to your bottom line,” O’Brien said. “And sometimes, there are no good solutions.”