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Self-censoring Siri? Chinese version won't discuss Tiananmen

  • Staff Reporter
  • 2012-06-21
  • 16:15 (GMT+8)
Apple's Siri voice assistant was first launched on the iPhone 4S in an English-language version. (File photo/CFP)

Apple's Siri voice assistant was first launched on the iPhone 4S in an English-language version. (File photo/CFP)

Apple announced in early June that it will launch Mandarin and Cantonese language versions of its Siri voice assistant, first launched on the iPhone 4S, to cater to the Chinese market. However, some website experts recently tested the new version only to find that the system will pretend not to understand questions involving such as politically sensitive terms as "Tiananmen Square" and "6-4" (June 4, the date of the army's crackdown on the student protesters in 1989).

As it will even not answer questions about how to get to the massive square in the center of Beijing, they suspect Siri is employing self-censorship to enter the Chinese market, according to Duowei News, a Chinese-language media outlet based in New York run by overseas Chinese.

After the original English-speaking version of Siri was found to censor the term "abortion" in early 2012, Chinese Digital Era, a news website studying China's state-run media and their blocking of news reporting under the University of California at Berkeley in the US, specifically looking into the issue of freedom of speech with regards to Siri's Chinese version.

One user attempted to use Siri to ask about the Tiananmen Square crackdown, to which Siri replied, "I didn't find an appointment about Tiananmen Square." The user asked again, this time saying, "Do you know about the Tiananmen Square Incident?" Siri replied, "I didn't find the appointment about 'do you know about the Tiananmen Square Incident'."

The user went further, asking, "Do you know what have happened on June 4, 1989?" This time Siri said, "Sorry, there is no such contact in your address book." When the user asked the simple question "How can I get to the Tiananmen Square by vehicle?" Siri also refused to answer, saying, " Sorry, an error occurred somewhere, please try again."

Some analysts argue that the map function on Apple is the reason Siri could not give directions to the square, but the refusal to discuss "June 4" is very a result of self-censorship, suspecting that Apple has ensured Siri will play dumb if asked about sensitive issues. Others gave the opinion that Apple may not have deliberately attempted to censor Siri — in other words, if Siri retrieves its information from the internet in China, its answers will inevitably be indirectly "harmonized" as well.

Earlier this year, Siri's English version was said to be avoiding questions related to the issue of abortion. Apple's response at that time was that this was a system error, not a deliberate attempt to avoid the subject.

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