New Site Tracks Gaps in Apple’s Chinese App Store

New Site Tracks Gaps in Apple’s Chinese App Store

This week censorship trackers launched a new search site,, to highlight content discrepancies between Apple’s App Stores in China, the United States, and elsewhere. Apple has removed hundreds of apps in China to comply with censorship demands, from news apps to VPN clients. From Ryan Gallagher at The Intercept:

In addition to the hundreds of VPN apps, Apple is currently preventing its users in China from downloading apps from news organizations, including the New York Times, Radio Free Asia, Tibetan News, and Voice of Tibet. It is also blocking censorship circumvention tools like Tor and Psiphon; Google’s search app and Google Earth; an app called Bitter Winter, which provides information about human rights and religious freedoms in China [see a report from Bitter Winter on repression in Xinjiang]; and an app operated by the Central Tibetan Authority, which provides information about Tibetan human rights and social issues.

[…] An Apple spokesperson declined to address removals of specific apps from China, but pointed to the company’s app store review guidelines, which state: “Apps must comply with all legal requirements in any location where you make them available.” The spokesperson said that Apple, in its next transparency report, is planning to release information on government requests to remove apps from its app store.

[…] Apple CEO Tim Cook has presented himself as a defender of users’ privacy. During a speech in October last year, Cook declared, “We at Apple believe that privacy is a fundamental human right.” It is unclear how Cook reconciles that sentiment with Apple’s removal of privacy-enhancing software from its app store in China, which helps ensure that the country’s government can continue to monitor its citizens and crack down on opponents. Cook appears to have viewed compliance with Chinese censorship and surveillance as worthwhile compromises. “We would obviously rather not remove the apps,” he said in 2017, “but like we do in other countries we follow the law wherever we do business. … We’re hopeful that over time the restrictions we’re seeing are lessened, because innovation really requires freedom to collaborate and communicate.” [Source]

While political censorship in the Chinese App Store has been well documented, some caution is necessary when attributing negative results on the new site to it. As Gallagher notes, some apps may be missing due to anti-gambling or other restrictions. Moreover, although it is the default setting, not every app is released in every market in the first place: of the four top-ten news apps listed as missing in China, for example, Yahoo News is also absent from the Canadian and British stores. Even when an app is absent only from China’s store, its developers may themselves have declined to release it there if, for example, web services on which it depends are already blocked.

Censorship is not the only area in which Apple’s compromises in China have faced criticism. In a recent list of five predictions for Chinese information controls in the coming year, Freedom House’s Sarah Cook included the possibility of an arrest based on data obtained from Apple’s new China-based iCloud servers, which would echo Yahoo’s infamous complicity in the prosecutions of journalist Shi Tao and activist Wang Xiaoning.

The 2017 Cybersecurity Law stipulates that foreign companies must store Chinese users’ cloud data on servers located in China. To meet this requirement, Apple announced last January that iCloud data would be transferred to servers run by a company called Guizhou on the Cloud Big Data (GCBD), which is owned by the Guizhou provincial government. Apple and GCBD now both have access to iCloud data, including photos and other content.

Given that personal communications and information from platforms like WeChat, QQ, Twitter, and Skype have increasingly been used by Chinese authorities to detain or convict people for their peaceful political or religious speech, it is only a matter of time before foreign companies with localized data centers become complicit in a politicized arrest. Apple has already proved its willingness to comply with Chinese government demands that violate basic freedoms by removing hundreds of apps used to circumvent censorship or access foreign news services from its mobile store in China.

Other companies to watch include the US-based note-taking app Evernote, which transferred user data to Tencent Cloud last year, and various blockchain platforms, which as of next month will be required to implement real-name registration, monitor content, and store user data. [Source]

Facebook’s former Chief Information Security Officer Alex Stamos, now at Stanford, has been a vocal critic of Apple’s compromises over censorship and data localization. From Stamos’ response to a Cook speech on privacy last October, for example:

While his former employer has attracted both criticism and derision for wooing Chinese authorities, Stamos has implicitly argued elsewhere that any resulting compromises on Facebook’s part remain prospective, while Apple’s have already been made:

Stamos resumed his criticism this week in the wake of temporary revocations of Facebook and Google’s certifications for enterprise app distribution after the two companies broke their terms of use to sidestep privacy restrictions. The bans have variously been hailed as an example of Apple’s potential as “technology regulator of last resort” against persistent privacy violations, and seen as a sharp warning of Apple’s absolute “Thanos-style” power over its platform. (Even The New York Times’ Kevin Roose, who made the former argument, described the scenario as “bizarre and somewhat troubling.”) With some once more hailing Apple as a privacy champion, Stamos forcefully blamed it for setting the example which other U.S. tech firms’ ventures into China, like Google’s apparently ill-fated Project Dragonfly, had followed:

The Chinese market is hugely important to Apple, as the impact of slowing sales there on its overall revenues has vividly illustrated, but the company is even more dependent on Chinese manufacturing. Earlier this week, The New York Times’ Jack Nicas detailed the difficulties Apple faced in its efforts to assemble its 2013 Mac Pro elsewhere, including inadequate local manufacturing capacity for custom screws. Such challenges may leave Apple with little immediate alternative but to preserve the viability of its Chinese supply chain.

The screw shortage was one of several problems that postponed sales of the computer for months, the people who worked on the project said. By the time the computer was ready for mass production, Apple had ordered screws from China.

The challenges in Texas illustrate problems that Apple would face if it tried to move a significant amount of manufacturing out of China. Apple has found that no country — and certainly not the United States — can match China’s combination of scale, skills, infrastructure and cost.

In China, you will also find one of Apple’s most important markets, and over the last month the risks that come with that dependence have become apparent. On Jan. 2, Apple said it would miss earnings expectations for the first time in 16 years, mostly because of slowing iPhone sales in China. On Tuesday, the company is expected to reveal more details about its financial results for the most recent quarter and its forecast for the coming year.

[…] Apple has intensified a search for ways to diversify its supply chain, but that hunt has homed in on India and Vietnam [see a recent Wall Street Journal report], according to an Apple executive who asked not to be named because the executive was not authorized to speak publicly. The company’s executives are increasingly worried that its heavy dependence on China for manufacturing is risky amid the country’s rising political tensions with the United States and unpredictability, this person said. [Source]


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