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Between Turkey and China, It Was a Really Bad Weekend for Free Speech on the Internet

Apple killed its news app in China, and Turkey instituted a media blackout.

Ozan Kose / AFP via Getty

When Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to the U.S. last month, NGOs including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released statements urging American tech companies not to do the “dirty work” of the Chinese government.

Internet freedom activists chalked up another disappointment this weekend, as the New York Times reported that Apple had apparently “deactivated” its Apple News app in China in order to avoid dealing with government censors. And in Turkey, reports surfaced indicating that the government was behind an Internet outage in the wake of a deadly bombing at a peace rally.

Censorship isn’t new for either government — China is near the bottom of the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, and Turkey is ranked 149th out of 180.

Apple has previously yanked apps that the Chinese authorities didn’t like, including anything related to the Dalai Lama. Earlier this year, the company was reportedly talking with the Chinese government about ways the company could do business there without building a “back door” for the government to access user data.

In Turkey, Twitter has long tussled with the government over keeping the service accessible to users. In April, a Turkish court briefly banned services including Twitter and YouTube for the second time in a year. On Saturday, authorities issued a total media blackout (which Turkish media ignored) after a bombing in the capital, Ankara, that killed 97 people. Across the country, Twitter users reported service issues.

As Silicon Valley looks to grow newer markets in countries like China, Turkey and elsewhere, firms are finding it tricky to balance their commitment to free speech with the strict rules of many governments.

Google is probably the biggest cautionary tale for American tech companies. After wrestling with the Chinese government over free speech concerns, the company left the country in 2010. Since then, Chinese smartphone makers (such as Xiaomi) that use Android software have taken off, which means Google hasn’t had control over the OS in China, and it has missed out on revenue from apps. That’s why, five years later, Google is trying to get back into the good graces of the Chinese government.

Xi’s visit last month suggests that the Chinese government was offering an olive branch to Silicon Valley, which in turn was sang the praises of Xi’s government and the Chinese economy.

It’s important to note that problems like these aren’t limited to American companies or users. In South Korea, the popular messaging service KakaoTalk handed over chat logs to the government last year. The Supreme Court of India handed down a judgment in March that killed a law making “offensive” comments on social media punishable by jail time.

American tech executives like Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg have gone out of their way to reaffirm their free speech bona fides this year. Foreign governments, China’s chief among them, are trying very hard to get Silicon Valley to stay in line.

So far, it looks like the latter group is winning.

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