When Safari users in Hong Kong recently tried to load the popular code-sharing website GitLab, they received a strange warning instead: Apple’s browser was blocking the site for their own safety. The access was temporarily cut off thanks to Apple’s use of a Chinese corporate website blacklist, which resulted in the innocuous site being flagged as a purveyor of misinformation. Neither Tencent, the massive Chinese firm behind the web filter, nor Apple will say how or why the site was censored.
The outage was publicized just ahead of the new year. On December 30, 2022, Hong Kong-based software engineer and former Apple employee Chu Ka-cheong tweeted that his web browser had blocked access to GitLab, a popular repository for open-source code. Safari’s “safe browsing” feature greeted him with a full-page “deceptive website warning,” advising that because GitLab contained dangerous “unverified information,” it was inaccessible. Access to GitLab was restored several days later, after the situation was brought to the company’s attention.
The warning screen itself came courtesy of Tencent, the mammoth Chinese internet conglomerate behind WeChat and League of Legends. The company operates the safe browsing filter for Safari users in China on Apple’s behalf — and now, as the Chinese government increasingly asserts control of the territory, in Hong Kong as well.
Apple spokesperson Nadine Haija would not answer questions about the GitLab incident, suggesting they be directed at Tencent, which also declined to offer responses.
The episode raises thorny questions about privatized censorship done in the name of “safety” — questions that neither company seems interested in answering: How does Tencent decide what’s blocked? Does Apple have any role? Does Apple condone Tencent’s blacklist practices?
“They should be responsible to their customers in Hong Kong and need to describe how they will respond to demands from the Chinese authorities to limit access to information,” wrote Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous founder of GreatFire, a Chinese web censorship advocacy and watchdog group. “Presumably people purchase Apple devices because they believe the company when they say that ‘privacy is a fundamental human right’. What they fail to add is *except if you are Chinese.”…