Apple Limits AirDrop in China After It Was Used to Spread Protest Messages

The new restriction came after activists in China used the feature to sidestep censorship.
APPLE RESTRICTED USE OF AIRDROP ON IPHONES IN CHINA. PHOTO: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP​
APPLE RESTRICTED USE OF AIRDROP ON IPHONES IN CHINA. PHOTO: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP

Apple has restricted the use of AirDrop on iPhones in China, after protesters used the wireless file-sharing feature to secretly spread messages criticizing the Chinese authorities.

Chinese users who updated their iPhone’s version to iOS 16.1.1, released Wednesday, will be able to use the feature to receive files from strangers only for 10 minutes at a time.

Previously, the setting to accept files from “everyone” had no time limit. Now, after ten minutes, the device will fall back to accepting files from contacts only, Chinese outlets have reported.

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The feature is one of few relatively untraceable methods of sharing digital files in China, where social media platforms and even private messaging apps are scrutinized by moderators and the government’s censorship apparatus.

It was recently used by some Chinese residents to distribute photos criticizing the regime in public. The small acts of defiance were in support of the “bridge man,” a lone protester who hung banners on a bridge in Beijing last month to criticize China’s president, Xi Jinping, days before he secured a groundbreaking third term as the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s leader.

The new limit would dramatically shorten the time window for such tactics.

“Can’t you tell this is Apple making a compromise? It used to be a great method to bypass censorship,” read a comment in response to the news on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. Some users also questioned why the feature is introduced to only iPhones sold in mainland China.

The time cap, which aims to mitigate unwanted file sharing, will be rolled out across the globe in the coming year, Apple told Bloomberg.

The tech giant has come under heat for bowing to China in the past. It pulled the flags of Taiwan—a self-governed democracy that China claims as part of its territory—from iPhones in Hong Kong in 2019. It also proactively removes sensitive apps that might run afoul of Chinese rules from its App Store in China, including VPN, encrypted messaging, and religious apps.

Elsewhere, people have exploited the AirDrop function to harass strangers, including sending unsolicited dick pics and violent threats.

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