Apple’s abject apology to China this week has resolved complaints about its warranties—a pseudo-scandal that was relentlessly hyped on state-owned media. But its problems may not be over: Apple’s iTunes Store has been circumventing the Great Firewall of China—the only major foreign online service to do so—and a crackdown is looming.
“To this day the iTunes is the greatest Trojan horse of foreign content that any foreign media or tech company has managed to sneak into the People’s Republic without serious scrutiny,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder and director of the research firm Danwei, in a conversation this week on ChinaFile.
In December, Apple made a little-noticed change to iTunes in China that effectively left the country’s censors in the dark. By adopting the HTTPS protocol—the same used by banks and Gmail and other online services concerned with security—Apple added a layer of encryption and authentication between its servers and its users, making it much more difficult for censors to eavesdrop.
Without HTTPS, users searching the iTunes App Store for tools to evade censors—for example, “vpn” to search for a virtual private network, which can be used to tunnel through the Great Firewall—were unceremoniously disconnected from the Chinese internet, according to Greatfire.org, a site devoted to monitoring censorship in China.
Before the state-run media campaign that pilloried Apple’s perceived arrogance, the company’s security measures might have escaped notice. (There is one conspiracy theory that the HTTPS move actually triggered the warranty flap.) But there is little chance that anything related to Apple’s businesses in China—its second-largest market after the United States—will stay under the radar now.
“It’s almost like a glitch in the Matrix … they’ve sort of used up their luck in terms of not being noticed,” said Ben Cavender, associate principal at China Market Research Group in Shanghai. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple comes under much more pressure to conform and toe the line in terms of censorship and getting approval from the government for what’s in their store.”
However, a bit more censorship in China might not be disastrous for Apple, provided it can navigate the treacherous PR and government relations challenges like those it encountered this week. A far bigger hurdle will be getting Chinese consumers to actually pay for apps, music, and video.
“The biggest problem is getting people to pay for content. A lot of people are jailbreaking their phones and getting copycat programs, or popular games with their features stripped out,” he said.
Ironically for Apple, success in China may depend on simultaneously loosening up security to let the government in, while tightening it up to make sure consumers follow its rules.