Apple Disables iOS News App In China, NYT Reports

The Great Firewall of China has extended to one of the latest iPhone apps. Apple disables the News app in mainland China, according to the New York Times.
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Fans of Apple's iOS News app who are traveling in China are going to have to look for another way to get their news while on the mainland, where media censorship runs rampant.

An Oct. 12 report in The New York Times, citing an unnamed source with "direct knowledge of the situation," confirmed Apple has disabled the app for that region, although it still works in Hong Kong.

The app was launched in June. While it is currently only available for US iPhone owners, the service will work in other countries around the world.

Users who attempt to use the app in China are instead hit with the message, "Can't refresh right now. News isn't supported in your current region."

The app collects stories it thinks the user wants to read from top news sources, based on topics the user is most interested in, and combines the immersive design found in print with the interactivity of digital media.

Other features include the ability to save articles in iCloud so users can access them across iOS devices and advanced search and filtering options.

Technology entrepreneur Larry Salibra, whose Pay4Bugs business provides software testing services, took to Twitter to voice his displeasure with Apple's approach to the issue, calling the decision "not cool" and "disturbing."

Salibra elaborated on his comments in a blog post that wound up getting traction on the news aggregation site Reddit:

As someone who has run a business in China for the better part of a decade, Apple's increasing sales, marketshare and dependence on China for growth gives me mixed feelings. The larger Apple gets in China, the more power and leverage the Chinese government has over the company.

On a technical level, Salibra explained that what worries him is that the mechanism Apple uses to disable the News app. Apple Maps also uses the location of users to change the behavior of their device without their permission, even if the location service is disabled in the privacy settings.

Although what Salibra calls the "China Kill Switch" is currently limited to disabling the News App and Apple Maps, he noted it is easy to imagine a Chinese government official asking Apple to extend that ability to other Apps and services on iPhones.

[Watch this video to learn more about China and censorship.]

"As Apple's hardware products become more and more dependent on cloud services and content the company moves deeper into politically sensitive waters," Salibra warned. "There is the risk that a sudden policy change from Beijing could cut off their services."

A September report in the Los Angeles Times suggests US tech companies are taking a big hit in profits thanks to China's Great Firewall, with lost revenues reaching into the billions.

In addition, because no official numbers are available and companies haven't disclosed potential revenue losses, it’s hard to say how big the missed opportunity really is.

"I don't think in general there's that much awareness, at least outside of Silicon Valley, about the impact of some of the restrictions, the Great Firewall, and what the financial consequences are and what that might translate into," Jock O'Connell, a Sacramento-based trade expert told the paper. "How many jobs would there be for people in California were those restrictions removed?"