Chinese translation app censors words – but not on iPhone

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Chinese censorship
If using a translation app while in China, you may not get help with politically sensitive topics.
Photo: Hitesh Choudhary/Pexels.com CC

A translation app widely used in China appears to censor politically touchy terms, such as “Tiananmen” or “ Taiwan independence.” It even refuses the name of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

However, the app’s censoring of those forbidden phrases happens only on Android. The iOS version answers the query on all three.

The app is called iFlyTranslate and tech writers for the South China Morning Post ran informal voice queries by the app for both mobile operating systems.

They did so after software engineer Jane Manchun Wong tweeted about her attempts to get the app to respond to certain names or sensitive words. Wong, according to the Post is known to reverse-engineer apps to find hidden features.

Chinese censorship: renewed crackdowns

The app’s developer, iFlytek, routinely provides voice-recognition technology for government conferences and its playing nice as part of China’s crackdown on dissent online.

Tech companies, including Apple, have had to make compromises in order to do business in China. Apple wants a bigger share of the smartphone market in China and is routinely forced to acquiesce on its data privacy policies to pacify the Communist government.

In February, Apple was forced to move iCloud accounts there to state-run servers to comply with new cybersecurity laws. It also pulled apps like Skype from the App Store in China to comply with local law.

Why loaded terms were able to go unfiltered in iOS and not Android is unclear. An update by the developer could change how the iOS app filters taboo words and phrases.

Voice queries made with the app are sent as MP3 files o iFlyTek servers, which quickly process and return the results.

When Post reporters queried “Tiananmen massacre”, the iFlyTranslate app returned the Madarin character for “Big,” according to the Post’s reporting

“Taiwanese independence” came back as “Taiwan” in both Mandarin and English. With a text request, the app replied with just an asterisk.

The app even filtered out with the name “Winnie,” a result that did not surprise the Post because of memes that compared Xi’s appearance to Winnie the Pooh. Those internet memes have since disappeared.

Source: South China Morning Post