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Apple Restricts AirDrop function in China Amidst Protests

Apple’s new AirDrop settings on iPhones in China. Image by Bloomberg


A Nov. 9 update to Apple’s global operating system, iOS 16.1.1, brought a new AirDrop feature applying only to iPhones sold in mainland China, largely restricting the spread of information amongst protesters.


Mass protests have erupted across multiple cities and college campuses in China following strict lockdowns enforced by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) “Zero-Covid” policy in an attempt to contain the spread. Further demonstrations came after an apartment building caught fire, killing at least 10, and injuring nine; prompting suspicions that Covid policies, including chaining or welding shut emergency exits, may have delayed rescue efforts. 


However, the increasing opposition, led mainly by GenZ and millennials, intensified as President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian leadership announced an unprecedented third term in October. 


Under the latest update, iPhone owners in China can only use AirDrop to receive files, images and videos from other “everyone” for 10 minutes before automatically switching off. Beyond that, airdrop functions only between “contacts only” or “receiving off.” 


Protesters in China have relied on the previous freedoms Apple AirDrop provided to reach the public through the CCP’s censorship for years, most notably during Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests.


While the official reason for this update is to safeguard users from “nuisance” or “inappropriate” files, images and videos, Apple is being criticized for implementing changes to appease the Chinese government. Apple had previously removed several virtual private network (VPN) services, which are commonly used to bypass the country’s internet firewall, from the App Store in China in 2017. In 2019, the Taiwanese flag emoji, while visible to iPhone users in the United States, was missing from the IOS emoji keyboard in Hong Kong. Last year, Apple iClound+’s  “private relay” was banned in China because it allows users to browse the internet masking their identity and what sites they are visiting, hiding the date from the network provider and even Apple. 


Currently, the majority of Apple products are manufactured in China. Apple has not yet released a statement or addressed the mounting criticism surrounding the AirDrop restrictions. 


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