Apple limits airdrops from Chinese phones, kneecapping government protesters

Apple cut one of the few ways to avoid censorship in China, airdrops.
Stephen Vicinanza
Chinese Flag and Silhouettes
Chinese Flag and Silhouettes

Tomas Ragina/iStock  

Apple's recent iOS update quietly, and completely unannounced, stopped offering the AirDrop service to Chinese phones and tablets.

Airdrops are a file transfer service that sends specific files, directly between phones, without the need for a network. In the wave of anti-government protests larger than ever before, protesters are having to communicate without the use of a crucial tool: AirDrops.

AirDrop, a file-sharing feature on Apple iOS devices, has aided dissent in many authoritarian countries. The phones form a local network of devices, that are independent of any external sources.

Anyone can opt-in to receiving an AirDrop file, from anyone else with an iPhone within range. Many cryptocurrency organizations, called DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations) use AirDrop currency as perks to their financial offerings.

In Apple's case, they control the AirDrop organization, rather than it being a decentralized, or autonomous service. It flirts with the idea of being autonomous, but in the end, has a central authority, that can turn the service on or off, as it has done in China.

On November 9, 2022, Apple released its latest version of the mobile operating system, iOS 16.1.1. There was no mention of new features or the removal of access to some features.

The announcement to users was a short, simple message. “This update includes bug fixes and security updates and is recommended for all users.”

There was a change to the AirDrop access, hidden within the update. It applied only to iPhones sold in mainland China.

There are settings that allow the AirDrop to be between certain phones, or to everyone. The receive messages from the "everyone" setting would now only run for ten minutes, then shut off, needing to be reset. The send-to-everyone setting was no longer permanent.

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Essentially immediate communication would be limited, and could not be resumed for 10 minutes or more.

Apple limits airdrops from Chinese phones, kneecapping government protesters
Victoria Square Protesters

In the world of protests, being able to send files to anyone with an AirDrop who is just passing by on the street in the immediate range of the sender, was a strong tool for messaging. This was especially true because there was no censorship. Many protesters, passersby, and tourists had been alerted to protests in Hong Kong, during the police crackdowns, just a year ago.

The AirDrop function has been used on mainland China, mainly on college campuses, to aid protesters with protest literature and where current protests are showing up in larger than expected numbers.

China's control of the internet, and consequently the networks on the internet, has become so overwhelming that many dissidents are using communication methods such as AirDrop. The AirDrop method is a kind of crack in what protesters call the Great Firewall.

According to Bloomberg, next year, the 10-minute feature restriction will be everywhere. The question remains why do it now when there is such unrest, where the initiative to limit connections is taking place? Why not just roll it out in China, when the restriction goes into effect worldwide?

It has been reported that AirDrops can be annoying. There is a never-ending stream of memes and worse, for anyone who uses the receive files from everyone feature.

There may be a more urgent question, why do this unannounced and unassuming update in early November? The clues may be in the dissent shown to the now self-appointed president, Xi Jinping, who claimed a third term. There was a rare public display of that dissent.

There are protesters like Bridge Man, who is hanging signs from overpasses, and lighting fires on the overpass itself, to call attention to his messages. They say "Go on strike at school and work, remove the dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping."

Although quickly censored on the internet, photos of the signs were circulating nonetheless.

It seems this is a business move on Apple's part, but many have said, and still say, if there is a will, there is a way.