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.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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