Apple makes good with the Chinese government, but a battle over encryption is on the cards

"Arrogant" Apple has apologised in China.

Two stories broke yesterday which say something interesting about Apple's contrasting attitude to working with Governments worldwide. Firstly, the company stands accused of helping the Chinese government censor the works of a dissident author in its App Store. The Financial Times reports:

Hao Peiqiang, the developer of an online bookstore app called “jingdian shucheng”, received a letter from Apple’s “App Review” on Thursday morning telling him his app will be removed because it “includes content that is illegal in China”.

Apple did not specify what content it was referring to, but Mr Hao told the Financial Times he believed the offending content consisted of three books by Wang Lixiong, the Chinese writer whose works are mostly banned in China.

Hao's blogpost shows the letter he received, and it remains possible that there has been a misunderstanding. But given the books themselves are banned in the country, and the app is still available in other stores, it sounds likely that Apple did the bidding of the government.

Compare and contrast that with the news that Apple's iMessage service - which replaces SMS on iPhone-to-iPhone conversations – is causing headaches for the American authorities. CNet's Declan McCullagh and Jennifer Van Grove write:

An internal Drug Enforcement Administration document seen by CNET discusses a February 2013 criminal investigation and warns that because of the use of encryption, "it is impossible to intercept iMessages between two Apple devices" even with a court order approved by a federal judge.

The DEA's "Intelligence Note" says that iMessage came to the attention of the agency's San Jose, Calif., office as agents were drafting a request for a court order to perform real-time electronic surveillance under Title III of the Federal Wiretap Act. They discovered that records of text messages already obtained from Verizon Wireless were incomplete because the target of the investigation used iMessage: "It became apparent that not all text messages were being captured."

From a data security point of view, iMessage isn't even particularly good. The lack of documentation on it means that we largely have to take Apple's word that it's secure, and as cryptographer Matthew Green writes, what little we do know suggests a huge number of moving parts – and so a huge amount which can go wrong.

But the important thing is that authorities used to being able to eavesdrop on phone and text conversations with little more than a radio scanner and some software have suddenly had the rug pulled from under them. Apple itself may still have the capability to read iMessages from the middle, since the encryption doesn't appear to be end-to-end – but getting to your conversations now requires the company to play ball.

It's contrasting stories like these which make it hard to generalise about the effects of technology and the internet on, well, anything. In China, the effects of technological centralisation have make clamping down on banned books, perversely, easier; with the App Store the only game in town for iOS apps, the government only has to send one threatening letter to shut down dissent.

And Apple has been learning the hard way that China isn't like its other markets. Erica Ogg writes at GigaOm:

After a two-week sustained campaign conducted by the country’s government-controlled media outlets against Apple’s repair and warranty service for iPhones that painted the company as “arrogant,” Apple took the very unusual step of having Cook apologize in an open letter to Chinese customers.

But even while the company is struggling to please the Chinese government, in rolling out one of the most widely used encryption programs ever, its actions aren't entirely reinforcing the status quo.

Fundamentally, Apple will follow the money. Sometimes, that's good for privacy, freedom and human rights; and sometimes it's not. But what goes for Apple goes just as much for every other tech company. It's that fact which underpins the fallacy of what author Evgeny Morozov describes as "internet centrism" – the result of reifying the Internet and imbuing it with natural tendencies, as though it wasn't just a collection of individuals and companies each using loosely related technologies to do their own things.

But the increasing use of encryption, one of those technologies in daily life is starting to have effects in the West. For all the over-hyped discussion of the role of social networks in the Arab Spring, that's something which really does have the potential to change things in oppressed nations. If Apple is determined to stick on the good side of the Chinese Government in the long term, a struggle over iMessage might be on the cards.

Customers queue up outside the Apple store in Beijing on the launch of the iPhone 4S. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

In the row over public sector pay, don't forget that Theresa May is no longer in charge

Downing Street's view on public sector pay is just that – Conservative MPs pull the strings now.

One important detail of Theresa May’s deal with the Democratic Unionist Party went unnoticed – that it was not May, but the Conservatives’ Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, who signed the accord, alongside his opposite number, the DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson.

That highlighted two things: firstly that the Conservative Party is already planning for life after May. The deal runs for two years and is bound to the party, not the leadership of Theresa May. The second is that while May is the Prime Minister, it is the Conservative Party that runs the show.

That’s an important thing to remember about today’s confusion about whether or not the government will end the freeze in public sector pay, where raises have been capped at one per cent since 2012 and have effectively been frozen in real terms since the financial crisis.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, signalled that the government could end the freeze, as did Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary. (For what it’s worth, Gavin Barwell, now Theresa May’s chief of staff, said before he took up the post that he thought anger at the freeze contributed to the election result.)

In terms of the government’s deficit target, it’s worth remembering that they can very easily meet Philip Hammond’s timetable and increase public sector pay in line with inflation. They have around £30bn worth of extra wriggle room in this year alone, and ending the pay cap would cost about £4.1bn.

So the Conservatives don’t even have to U-turn on their overall target if they want to scrap the pay freeze.

And yet Downing Street has said that the freeze remains in place for the present, while the Treasury is also unenthusiastic about the move. Which in the world before 8 June would have been the end of it.

But the important thing to remember about the government now is effectively the only minister who isn’t unsackable is the Prime Minister. What matters is the mood, firstly of the Cabinet and of the Conservative parliamentary party.

Among Conservative MPs, there are three big areas that, regardless of who is in charge, will have to change. The first is that they will never go into an election again in which teachers and parents are angry and worried about cuts to school funding – in other words, more money for schools. The second is that the relationship with doctors needs to be repaired and reset – in other words, more money for hospitals.

The government can just about do all of those things within Hammond’s more expansive target. And regardless of what Hammond stood up and said last year, what matters a lot more than any Downing Street statement or Treasury feeling is the mood of Conservative MPs. It is they, not May, that pulls the strings now.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496