Apple limits use of AirDrop features in China - as Covid-19 protests continue, what is The Great Firewall?

iPhone users in China have discovered their latest update has removed many of the AirDrop features used to organise protests in the country

Over the past month protestors in China have experienced problems with their iPhones as China continues to crack down on zero-Covid policy protests throughout the country. The size of the crowds have been compared to  the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

Users of the Apple product had noticed earlier in November that their AirDrop feature was no longer available to use over an unlimited amount of time and instead restricted to only 10 minutes of connectivity. The restrictions are only in effect in China, and were brought to the public attention after technology website 9to5Mac reported on the changes.

Apple’s AirDrop feature has been a tool protestors in China have used to disseminate information about demonstrations. The feature was pivotal to organizing protests in Hong Kong and bypassing China’s "Great Firewall" in 2019.

On November 9, Apple released its latest version of the mobile operating system, iOS 16.1.1 and there was no mention of new features or the removal of access to features already in place. The information supplied with the update simply informed iPhones users the update “includes bug fixes and security updates and is recommended for all users.”

The change to AirDrop access on iPhones sold in mainland China was hidden within the update  which didn’t highlight any curbing or limiting of the feature. Despite not responding to Business Insider for a comment regarding the AirDrop restrictions in China, Apple had mentioned that they intended to roll out the setting globally to prevent unwanted file sharing.

This is not the first time Apple has appeared to pacify the Chinese government and acquiesce to their demands. In 2019, China petitioned Apple to remove the Quartz business news publication’s app from its Chinese App Store after reporting on the 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests.

Why are China protesting Covid-19 restrictions?

China has been in the midst of widespread protest against the country’s zero-Covid rules, with one of the biggest rallies taking place this weekend after 10 people died in an apartment fire in Urumqi city, Xinjiang.

Some locals are blaming virus control barriers for the deaths of the residents, as videos emerged depicting a far-away firetruck failing to properly extinguish the flames.

Candles are lit as people protest the deaths caused by an apartment complex fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, China

What is China’s “The Great Firewall?”

The Great Firewall is a combination of legislative actions and technologies enforced by the People’s Republic of China to regulate the Internet domestically. Its role in internet censorship in China is to block access to selected foreign websites and to slow down cross-border internet traffic.

The Great Firewall was formerly operated by the SIIO, as part of the Golden Shield Project. Since 2013, the firewall is technically operated by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) and alongside censoring material has also been used to give preference to domestic companies, reducing the effectiveness of products from foreign internet companies to boost development of China’s internal internet economy.

The techniques deployed by the Chinese government to maintain control of the Great Firewall can include modifying search results for terms, as they did following the arrest of Ai Weiwei.