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Apple accused of censoring apps in Hong Kong and Russia to maintain market access
Activists note absence of VPNs ponder whether Apple may put revenue above human rights in some markets
Apple has been accused of selling out human rights for the sake of profit by cooperating with authoritarian censorship demands in China and Russia, according to two reports issued on Thursday.
The reports, "Apps at Risk: Apple's Censorship and Compromises in Hong Kong" and "United Apple: Apple's Censorship and Compromises in Russia," were released by the Apple Censorship Project, which is run by free speech advocacy group GreatFire.
"As our two reports show, examples of Apple’s censorship abound," said Benjamin Ismail, campaign and advocacy director at GreatFire and project director of GreatFire's Apple Censorship project, in a statement.
The report calls out "the insincerity of Apple’s self-proclaimed support for LGBTQ+ Rights."
"Apple’s temporary withdrawal from Russia following the start of the war in Ukraine, and Apple’s decision to move part of its production out of China, have not provided tangible evidence of any improvement of the situation in the App Store so far. For all we know, Apple is still willing to collaborate with repressive regimes."
Ismail said he expects the reports will be used to try to convince lawmakers to pass antitrust bills that aim to mitigate Apple's App Store gatekeeping powers – something European lawmakers may have achieved with the recently approved Digital Markets Act.
The Hong Kong-focused Apps at Risk report contends that Apple's 50 percent share of the smartphone market makes it the Chinese Communist Party's de facto kill switch for politically challenging content.
It notes that the Hong Kong App Store in November 2022 was missing 2,370 apps available elsewhere. In China's App Store, 10,837 apps are missing and in Russia's App Store, that figure is 2,754.
Many VPN apps have vanished from the Hong Kong App Store, the report says. And over the past two years, it's claimed, many media and information apps have been removed globally, raising the possibility that Apple is engaged in worldwide self-censorship or is doing so on behalf of authorities.
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The Apps at Risk report report says Apple has failed to offer support for the right of people in Hong Kong to access information without restriction and to express themselves online, even as the Chinese government has suppressed the democracy movement in Hong Kong.
"Apple's known about Beijing’s authoritarian preferences for decades," the report says. "Apple’s response to the events in Hong Kong the last few years are not knee-jerk reactions. Apple’s response is aligned to its global business strategies, with a top priority of appeasing the Chinese government to protect Apple’s supply chain, distribution channels, and revenue stream."
The report calls on Apple to publicly affirm its support for Hong Kongers' right to information and free expression.
The Russia report explores differences in the way that Russian and Chinese authorities enforce censorship demands, but reaches similar conclusions about how Apple operates. It statesthat from 2018 until 2022, Apple has appeared to comply more readily with censorship requests from the Kremlin.
"If Apple’s compliance with requests for censorship is best illustrated by cases of app removals from the iOS App Store," the report says. "Russia’s innovative and extensive oppression has also led to censorship within software (LGBTQ+ watch faces), accessories (LGBTQ+ watch bands), software-based cartography (Crimea), protocols (Private Relay), and even the design of iOS (Russian iOS)."
The Russia report, citing Apple's removal of LGBTQ+ apps in furtherance of state-backed homophobia, calls out "the insincerity of Apple’s self-proclaimed support for LGBTQ+ Rights."
Asked whether Apple's deployment of end-to-end encryption in iCloud might change things, Ismail expressed skepticism.
"We know nothing about how the data are stored in China Guizhou data center, which is owned by a Chinese company and not by Apple," he said in an email to The Register. "In this case, and for many other examples related to the management of the App Store (e.g. Government App Takedown Requests, App Store Review Board, etc.), Apple's trademark is opacity."
Ismail cautioned that the leverage authorities have in China and Russia over Apple will remain. "The relationships between those regimes and Apple are still asymmetrical, and strongly in favor of the governments of the country where Apple wants to maintain its access to the market, to build and to sell its products," he said, pointing to Apple's Private Relay, which never made it to China and was canceled in Russia.
Ismail however expressed optimism that Apple may be forced to allow third-party app stores. That requirement, called for under Europe's Digital Markets Act, is also a part of the Open App Markets Act, a bill that GreatFire has endorsed and US lawmakers have yet to pass.
"If as a user, you are free to download and install apps from any store and the web, then the removal of apps by Apple at the behest of a repressive government will have less impact on the users," Ismail explained. "Developers will still be able to update (and therefore secure) their apps and offer them to the users without control or intervention from Apple."
"Moreover, it should be easier for Apple to dismiss censorship demands by saying that the users can still find the app targeted by the authorities, outside of the App Store. Eventually, it might dissuade the authorities to even make the demand to Apple."
"Of course sideloading is not the perfect solution and other stores might be targeted by repressive governments. The important part is to let the users handle their device the way they want it to work. To have developers, publishers and customers all subject to Apple's decision is very dangerous. It has been the case repeatedly over the last decade."
"Apple's known about Beijing’s authoritarian preferences for decades"
Asked if Apple's rivals have handled the situation any better, Ismail pointed to Google, which shut down its Chinese search engine in 2010 after it was hacked from within the country.
Google and Twitter, he said, do much better in terms of transparency, citing an Apple Censorship report from April "showing Apple is lying in its Transparency reports and deliberately conceals the scale of app's unavailability and the reality of the 175 App Stores it operates worldwide."
"It might be time for Apple to consider the possibility that it does more harm by being present in China than by not being there," said Ismail. "In its Human Rights Policy, Apple claims 'Our approach is based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,' yet every principle set in that UN document is the exact opposite of Apple's policy."
Apple did not respond to a request for comment. ®