What the Chinese ban of Whatsapp, Telegram and Signal from Apple’s App Store means

According to the Wall Street Journal, Apple has removed or is about to remove a number of programmes from the Chinese version of its App Store, including Whatsapp, Threads, Telegram and Signal on the basis of national security concerns expressed by Beijing by Andrea Monti – Initially published in Italian on Strategikon – an Italian Tech – La Repubblica blog

The claim is entirely symmetrical to the decisions taken by the US against TikTok, again in the name of national security, and perhaps, in strictly technical terms, not entirely unfounded. However, it is not difficult to speculate that the affair is, in reality, a piece in the complicated mosaic that depicts the commercial competition between the two superpowers and which sees the relative Big Techs as points on which to exert economic pressure to achieve political goals. In fact, Apple could hardly consider abandoning the Chinese market ‘in the name of human rights’, the ‘protection of privacy’ or ‘freedom of expression’, and so it has no choice but to comply with the rules of the domestic law of the country in which it operates in order to (rightly) protect the interests of its shareholders. In other words, there is no scandal if a multinational company adapts its business strategies according to local regulations.

Regardless of these considerations, which deserve a separate in-depth study, the point remains that messaging systems are a constant concern for intelligence and investigative structures around the world, as evidenced -but that’s another story- by the silent war waged against cryptosmartphones such as Encrochat, SkyECC and their new iterations.
Telegram Forensics is a widely developed discipline until (at least) 2017, and the one on Whatsapp dates back as far as 2014, while the press has long reported on the possibility that US security agencies are trying to gain some form of access to one and the other. As for Signal, on the other hand, the source of concern is diametrically opposed: the robustness of its design architecture and the non-commercial structure of the way it is distributed make this app much less permeable to direct or indirect executive pressure. Finally, and this is more specific to the Chinese reality, the availability of such apps (including Threads) is likely to pose an unacceptable risk of weakening Wechat’s centrality in the management and control of social interactions. It is therefore perfectly understandable (to agree or disagree is another matter) that a government, any government, is unwilling to relinquish control over the way such instruments are used.

Leaving aside the specific issues related to national security management strategies in each of the two superpowers, there are, however, wider implications that should also make Europe reflect on the role of ‘gateway’ – or, if you like, of ‘sole gatekeeper’ – assumed by companies like Apple or, in general, by all those transversal services that concentrate in the hands of a single entity the right, and therefore, the power, to decide ‘who’ can access ‘what’.

When, back in 1991, Phil Zimmermann arranged for the first version of PGP to be made available on non-US network resources, the non-centralised nature of access to files made it practically impossible for the US authorities to block the circulation of a cryptographic software that, at the time, was legally considered to be a military weapon. Today, the centralisation of access to software via dedicated platforms makes things much easier because all it takes is for the sole distributor of the applications to make them unavailable.

Of course, one could observe that not the entire ecosystem (or rather, the ‘disto-system’) of software works this way, that for Android there are multiple platforms for downloading apps, and that even Apple, at least in Europe, has been forced to allow the possibility of creating distribution centres independent of the traditional App Store.
This consideration, however, does not change the core of the matter and, in particular, does not elide the observation that as long as a (quasi) monopolist vertically controls the entire supply chain, from the production of the hardware to the marketing of the software that makes it work, this (quasi) monopolist becomes the shortcut to imposing political and commercial choices.

It is true that the European Commission has recently opened investigations into the strategies of Alphabet, Amazon, Meta and Apple, but it is also true that, on the one hand, these concern ‘trivial’ sales strategies and, on the other hand, that the EU plays no role in the game of communication devices and related software.
So, while the regulators fiddle around with imposing useless rules on chargers or finding ways to get paid a few fines for alleged violations of byzantine regulations, the geopolitical issue of the de facto control exercised by the Lords of Technology over national and EU security decisions remains largely ignored.

That Big Tech has an influential role in this area is evident, just to give one example, in the EU’s announced intention to impose ‘client-side scanning’.

CSS is an automated system of ‘permanent preventive individual searches’ of communication devices to search for ‘illegal content’, whereby everyone becomes a suspect by default even if, as the supporters of security at all costs say, they have nothing to hide. The technology industry, with a few exceptions, is contesting this hypothesis in the name of ‘privacy protection’ (but more likely, once again, to protect its own commercial interests) and represents an interlocutor that, when it sits at the table with legislators, does so on an equal or even superior footing that is much more evident than the ‘normal’ negotiations involving other industries.

To understand the reason for this reverse imbalance, one only has to think of what could happen if, suddenly, Big Tech decided to globally revoke licences for the use of one of its webcall, e-mail management or file storage and exchange software. It would be paralysis.

Fantasy economics? Not so much, as shown, most recently, by the VMWare-Broadcom case, in which the recent change in commercial strategies for the use of the very popular virtualisation platform that ‘cuts out’ the ‘less-paying’ users is creating a silent earthquake, but still an earthquake, in the management of the infrastructures of institutions and companies that for years had relied on a business model that, in the long run, did not prove to be as stable as it seemed.

More on this in the next episode…








Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *