China’s top censor sets sights on Apple’s AirDrop


Features like Apple’s AirDrop, which allow smartphones to transfer content directly to other users nearby, may soon be restricted in China under new rules proposed by the country’s top internet regulator.

On Tuesday, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) proposed draft regulations to cover any service that uses Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other technologies to create a short-distance network for transferring content. That category would include Apple’s AirDrop as well as similar offerings from Google’s Android and from Chinese phone makers Vivo, Xiaomi, and Oppo, according to the South China Morning Post.

If implemented, services would need to undergo a security assessment before adding features that affect “public expression and social mobilization.” Users would also need to provide their real names and other identity information in order to use these features, similarly to other online services in China, notes the South China Morning Post

Providers would also be required to report the dissemination of information deemed to be harmful, and not display preview thumbnails and screenshots without the user’s consent. 

The CAC wrote that it was proposing these rules to “maintain national security.” The rules are now subject to a month-long public consultation process. 

“The core aim is to ensure that all the information transmission can be traced in case problematic things happen,” Gao Fuping, a professor at Shanghai’s East China University of Political Science and Law, told the South China Morning Post

Earlier limits

In early November, Apple imposed a 10-minute time limit on how long Chinese users could receive content via Airdrop from anyone in the vicinity. Once the time limit expired, the iPhone would revert to only receiving content from a user’s contacts. 

Apple told Bloomberg at the time that the new policy was meant to prevent the sharing of unwanted files, and later expanded the time limit globally. 

Yet protestors in China reportedly used features like AirDrop to share files without using the internet, thereby evading the controls normally imposed on Chinese platforms like messaging service WeChat and Twitter-like Weibo. In November, weeks after Apple limited AirDrop’s functionality in the country, Chinese protested against the country’s tough COVID controls (including snap lockdowns and mass testing) in nationwide demonstrations. China ended its COVID-zero policy soon after. 

Users have abused features like AirDrop in the past, such as by sending explicit photos to unsuspecting individuals. On Monday, Apple announced new protections that would intervene when a user sends or receives sensitive content, like photos containing nudity. 

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the CAC’s proposed rules.

What else is China regulating?

Features like AirDrop may now be in the firing line as regulators expand their scrutiny of the country’s internet, particularly regarding “illegal” content. Earlier regulatory crackdowns have targeted video games and livestreaming

More recently, the CAC has moved to regulate artificial intelligence. In January, the regulator prohibited using A.I. to create “fake news” and required those creating tools that can synthesize images, audio and video to prominently label that such content was generated and not real. 

Then in April, the CAC proposed new rules to control generative A.I. products like ChatGPT (which itself is not available in China), as Chinese companies like Alibaba and Baidu quickly tried to launch their own A.I. products. Among the proposed rules is a requirement that chatbots reflect “socialist core values” and not present content that undermines “state power,” according to the New York Times

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