Larry Salibra was traveling across China last month when he noticed something strange with his iPhone. Apple's news aggregation app News and its Beats 1 radio station had worked fine in Hong Kong, where he began his trip and where there is basically no internet censorship, but became unavailable as he entered mainland China, where the internet most definitely is censored.
The recently-launched News app was first made available on devices registered in the United States, but the service has been available to use around the world if users make sure their device's region is still set to the US. Salibra, a Hong Kong-based founder of bug software testing platform Pay4Bugs, was the first person to widely publicise the fact that this is not the case in mainland China, posting a blog about the ordeal. It quickly became a PR thorn poking into Apple.
By testing the availability of News in various areas and on different phone networks he worked out that the service was only blocked when connected to mainland China networks. His detailed tests were outlined at Larrysalibra.com, but the long and short of it was that Apple seemed to have added a "kill switch" for News and Beats 1 in China. ("Music is subversive", Salibra drily noted).
Apple did not respond to questions from Motherboard to confirm or explain this, though it looked like the firm was self-censoring.
"One can speculate that someone in Apple, understandably, decided that it was better to simply disable the News app within China than be forced to get into the business of censoring content article by article to comply with Beijing's wishes," wrote Salibra. "They probably didn't have a choice given the importance of the China market to their bottom."
Why risk any kind of confrontation with an uncompromising regime obsessed with controlling information?
Foreign tech firms censoring content to comply with China's strict rules is nothing new; it's necessary for them to be allowed to operate in the country. But that a company as enormous as Apple, which is delving further into content curation as well as hardware, seems willing to take the path of least resistance when other huge American tech and social media companies are deciding their own stances on censorship is significant. Apple is primarily a hardware company, but still, cutting off its news service in line with authoritarian rules hardly chimes with its youthful, communication-sharing, world-in-your-pocket image.
It makes business sense, of course. With Apple focusing heavily on the China market despite recent concerns about its performance there (a record 13 million iPhone 6S units were sold in the country at launch weekend in September), why risk any kind of confrontation with an uncompromising regime obsessed with controlling information?
Mark Zuckerberg is probably thinking the same thing. Facebook is one of many foreign social media sites blocked in China, and with nearly 650 million internet users among its 1.35 billion population the country is a vast potential market for Facebook. Zuckerberg is on charm overdrive to suck up to Chinese authorities, having given his latest speech in Mandarin in the country last month, at Beijing's Tsinghua University.
In the warmly-received speech he made no direct references to Facebook being blocked in China. He did give lots of motivational patter about how "when we can share and connect, life gets better" and spoke about how Facebook, against the odds, first grew an international user base.
"Don't give up because you have to change," Zuckerberg said. "There is a Chinese proverb I like that says, 'As long as you work hard, a piece of metal can become a needle'."
He signed off by addressing the students directly: "You will be global leaders. You can make life better for people in China and around the world. And you can use the internet to reach billions of people. Let's come together to connect the world."
He is indeed working hard to turn that piece of metal into a needle. Zuckerberg has also hosted Lu Wei, minister of the Cyberspace Administration of China, in Facebook's offices and even asked President Xi Jinping to name his unborn child during a White House event. (Xi declined.)
In Chinese society, personal business relationships often count for far more than actual performance. But the social media mogul's sidling up won't work as Facebook's primary driving force toward China.
"Mark Zuckerberg, you think coming to China and speaking Chinese will make the government give Facebook a green light?" wrote one user of Weibo, China's version of Twitter, following his Beijing speech. "Let me teach you a Beijing expression: 'Forget about it.'"
There is a fundamental difference when it comes to entering China's market today compared to just a few years ago, according to Samm Sacks, Asia analyst with political risk research and consulting firm Eurasia. "In the past it was about getting support from the right government stakeholders and building relationships," Sacks tells me. "The government is now less open to that approach. It's much more about conveying to the Chinese government that you're willing to be compliant."
Jim McGregor, chairman of global public affairs and communication consultants APCO Worldwide, is more blunt. "Zuckerberg is obviously a very accomplished and intelligent individual but he doesn't seem to have a clue on China," he says. "You don't get anywhere by pandering to China. Xi might be fine with you but most doors are closed. They don't respect you."
There has been an increasingly sinister crackdown on freedom of speech, the press, and social media in China since Xi took power in 2012. It's unlikely that Facebook, which did not respond to a request from Motherboard for comment on a potential China launch, doesn't realise that pandering will need to be followed by full compliance for any chance of China lifting its ban on the site. This would mean agreeing to scrub any mention in China of hot-button topics like Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Taiwanese independence, Hong Kong pro-democracy protests and the Dalai Lama, as have China's dominant social media platforms like Weibo.
"China's market is too big for them to ignore"
Some foreign social media firms have been able to self-censor in China without taking too much of a PR hit. LinkedIn does just this, despite CEO Jeff Weiner describing the move as "gut wrenching" and the company coming under fire when a journalist went public that he was told that his content would be censored on the site. But LinkedIn is a job-based site and by censoring politically sensitive content it is arguably not slicing out its core topics of discussion.
Facebook might not be as news-driven as Twitter (which is also banned in China), although LinkedIn-style censorship in the country would be a huge PR risk for Facebook.
"China's market is too big for them to ignore," says Scott Kennedy, a China-focused director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an influential Washington, DC-based think tank. "I'm sure they're having serious conversations about this now, trying to understand down to the nth degree what they'd need to do [to have the ban lifted].
"But if they don't show sensitivity to the global community and put some context and clear controls on what they're doing it could be disastrous for them," Kennedy adds. "It's about managing and introducing it. They will be challenged by their Chinese users as well. China is not North Korea. There is a vibrant internet and social media and all different kinds of websites."
Facebook would also face pressure from China's government to provide them with personal details of users. The company would already be a step toward this, with a real name policy that chimes with recently-introduced Chinese regulations. Authorities have forced social media firms in the country to make users register to their services under their real names in a move that made it even easier to hunt down anyone who opposes them. Prior to this, according to Amnesty International, in early 2015 police had caught and detained Chinese social media users for simply posting pictures of the pro-democracy Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong. Many remain in jail awaiting trial.
Imagine the firefight Facebook would have if someone in China was jailed for posting a sensitive picture on the site, or for being tagged in one, or for posting a drunken anti-government rant as their status update. It's not a far-fetched notion. In 2005 Yahoo Hong Kong was slammed for revealing the identity of dissident Chinese writer Shi Tao to authorities, resulting in him getting a ten-year jail sentence.
There are further signs of a tightening of control on foreign tech firms in China. This month it was revealed that IBM had become the first major US tech firm to comply with demands from China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to view some of its products' source code. The demands were made to increase China's security, with IBM saying that client data remained safe despite the move.
Although many experts, including APCO Worldwide's McGregor, would disagree, many believe that this all adds up to a depressing air of inevitability about a highly-censored version of Facebook being in the works for a China launch. It seems almost impossible that such a version hasn't been the subject of high-level discussions over ping pong in the firm's Menlo Park HQ, at the very least. The company already employs a director of public policy for Facebook in China, Wang-Li Moser. (Moser did not respond to an interview request.)
Facebook will have learned from Google, which has been blocked in China since 2010. Back then Google chose not to continue with self-censorship and pulled out of the country. It's a rare case. Rather than being viewed as a bastion of virtue in the face of a system designed to crush any shred of anti-authoritarian thought, it's likely that Apples and Facebooks of this world see the move as a cautionary tale of lost profits.
This speculation is, of course, in the absence of any announcements of intention from Facebook. Don't be surprised if things change soon, as Zuckerberg continues to shift his dinner party chair closer to Xi's. But for now, at least, China's netizens will have to look elsewhere for videos of cats riding hoovers for a little while yet.
Follow Jamie on Twitter.