Image for article titled Apple hobbled a crucial tool of dissent in China weeks before widespread protests broke out

Several Chinese cities and college campuses were the scene of anti-government protests. The most widespread show of public dissent in decades will have to manage without a crucial communication tool because Apple restricted its use in China.

AirDrop, the file-sharing feature on Apple devices, has helped people in authoritarian countries escape their government's control. AirDrop relies on phone connections to form a local network of devices that don't need the internet to communicate. People can choose to receive AirDrops from someone else.


The new version of Apple's mobile operating system was released in November. The company simply said, "This update includes bug fixes and security updates and is recommended for all users"

AirDrop can only be set to receive messages from everyone for 10 minutes before it is turned off, which was hidden in the update. There isn't a way to keep the "everyone" setting on. The change was first noticed by Chinese readers of 9to5 Mac.

AirDrop has been used to communicate with protesters in Hong Kong. It has been used to spread messages to tourists from mainland China. AirDropped protest literature can be found on college campuses where some of the current protests have taken place. China's control of the internet has made it necessary for dissidents to cling to any chance of escape.


The AirDrop change wasn't answered by Apple. It plans to make everyone for 10 minutes a global standard. AirDrops can be a nuisance in normal settings if you don't turn them off.

Why did Apple apply the change only to the Chinese version of the device? There were rare displays of public dissent when China's leader was anointed to a third term.

Bridge Man lit a fire on a bridge in Beijing in order to draw attention to his protest banners. They said to go on strike at school and work to remove the dictator. Photos and references to the banners were quickly removed from the Chinese internet, but private channels still carried them. Bridge Man's messages were being spread on the subway.

An illicit photo of Bridge Man’s message.

According to market research firm Canalys, Apple's market share among Chinese consumers is growing, even as the company tries to reduce its dependence on Chinese manufacturing. The market leader is a Chinese company.

Apple has helped China control dissent by removing apps that they use to coordinate, communicate, or gather information. At the height of the protests in Hong Kong, Apple decided to remove theQuartz app from its app store. Apple is once again helping the government by hobbling the function of AirDrop in China.

Every weekday morning, we deliver a free, fast, and fun briefing on the world's economy.