The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China welcomes Apple’s iPhones. Its News app? Not so much.

(Photo by Ken Ishii/Getty Images)

Apple has reportedly shut off access to its News app from inside China, an apparent response to Beijing's policy of censoring online content that is politically controversial.

Although American iPhone users who travel to China can open the News app, the software won't refresh with the latest headlines, according to the New York Times. Instead, it displays an error message: "Can’t refresh right now. News isn’t supported in your current region." Apple News isn't offered in much of the world yet, let alone in China.

For Apple, having to comply with government restrictions on Internet news is merely a speed bump in a wider story about its success in China. The company saw a dramatic 75 percent jump in Chinese iPhone sales over the past year, Apple chief executive Tim Cook said last month. It spent several months this year as China's top smartphone maker, battling it out with the Chinese giant Xiaomi for first place. (Xiaomi took the lead in August.)

But even as Apple makes its own pivot to Asia, the company is confronting some inevitable long-term challenges in China. The entire country is grappling with an economic slowdown that some analysts believe will ultimately hurt sales. And as cheaper labor moves to Vietnam and other parts of Asia, Apple's costs could go up.

Those are all mostly economic forces shaping Apple's ability to expand its core business in China. What makes the censorship issue different is that Apple News represents another of Apple's expansions into services rather than hardware.

Apple may be best known for making great devices, but as it continues rolling out products like Apple Music, Apple News and perhaps soon its long-rumored streaming TV service, the more it begins to look like its archrival, Google. Not in the online search sense but in the kinds of problems Google faced in China before it famously withdrew from that market in 2010.

[The auto industry is about to go to war over high-tech cars.]

Confronted with the demands of the Chinese government, Google chose to exit China rather than continue censoring its own search results there. In what became a high-level chess game with Beijing, Google suspended its Chinese-based search engine and began redirecting searches to a Hong Kong portal, where it said the censorship policy didn't apply. The decision effectively meant a full withdrawal from the Chinese mainland, where search and mobile services have become dominated by local companies.

Given the stakes involved in Apple's China business, it's unlikely Cook will choose the same path as Google. (Indeed, sensing a missed opportunity, Google now reportedly wants to get back into China.) And with News, Apple doesn't generate search results so much as curate other content on the Web. Where Google was literally giving Chinese citizens the information they sought, Apple News is designed to facilitate news consumption, and then only for foreigners.

Still, that doesn't diminish the strong ethical and regulatory headwinds now blowing in Apple's direction — an inevitable consequence of its much broader strategy to focus on content.