OpenDoor Shut in Apple's Chinese App Store

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The story below is one that we had originally planned on publishing in August. We are publishing it now to offer some transparency on what we have been doing behind the scenes to address what we feel is unjust censorship by Apple in its Chinese app store.

We are the party quoted in the Radio Netherlands interview as the “anonymous Chinese Internet expert”. We did not want to  be officially quoted because at the time we were waiting for our own FreeWeibo app to be approved by Apple.

Two weeks ago, to our delight, Apple approved the FreeWeibo App for the app store (including China). You can download the app here. We published this app in a partnership with Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW) who provided us with development support. RNW had agreed that they would delay publishing their story about OpenDoor so as not to jeopardise the acceptance of our jointly produced app. But two weeks ago, they had decided to go ahead and publish the article, which appeared on their web site before the app was approved. Their story was subsequently picked up by major news outlets, including BBC and CNN.

We are writing this story now to show that when dealing with Apple’s opaque censorship regulations, especially in China, it is sadly necessary to don a cloak and dagger. We’ve chosen to come out publicly on this issue now because our app is already in the app store and we believe that it will be harder for Apple to remove our app now that we have published this blog post.

OpenDoor received an “illegal content” message from Apple despite the fact that the app offers no content whatsoever. While Apple’s rules concerning censorship have long been challenged, it is clear that Apple can remove any app that they or the Chinese government dislikes  by using the same vague excuse. The content from our app comes purely from Sina Weibo users. If Apple feels that our app “includes content that is illegal in China” then how will they treat the many Sina Weibo apps (including the official Sina App) that are available?

Some further thoughts from us on the removal of the OpenDoor app and how this compares to other instances of censorship in the Chinese app store, excerpted from the RNW story:

A Chinese Internet expert, who wishes to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardise the acceptance of his own iOS app that was recently submitted to the Apple app store, notes that developers from NTD and the book app at least received notifications from Apple when they removed the apps. The expert also points out that “even though the interpretation of law might be problematic,” at least there does exist established legal precedent in which Falun Gong and Tibet-related content was prohibited.

Yet with OpenDoor’s removal, the Chinese Internet expert judges that “the censorship of Apple has reached a whole new level.”

In OpenDoor’s case it is hard to argue that the app contains “illegal content”, since the app is merely a browser and contains no content itself. So the Internet expert was “truly outraged” when the app was taken down unexplained, since to him it “meant Apple was starting to comply with orders without any legal basis, not even the pretense of legal basis.”

The Internet expert believes Apple realised that because it could “not even give OpenDoor some vague violations,” it initially opted for a silent take down, “which is more like an act by a domestic company, (…) taking down content because of a phone call from the officials.”

Since Apple has not responded to requests for comment, it is not clear whether the company took down the apps based on court orders, or how it otherwise decides that the apps contradict local laws.


OpenDoor is a browser app for iPhone and is different from other browsers in that the app will reroute traffic through its servers and therefore circumvent any blocks imposed by an ISP or the Great Firewall (GFW). The free version of the app is supported with advertising however users can pay a small amount of money to remove the ads. Although OpenDoor allows uncensored browsing, OpenDoor itself does not offer any content except for its default bookmarks.

We reported last year that Apple had adopted HTTPS for the App Store, making it impossible for GFW to block a single App. However, the download links for apps are still in HTTP and GFW has tried very hard to identify and block the download links for OpenDoor. GFW has also tried to block the servers OpenDoor has used to reroute user traffic. Neither attempt had been successful in shutting down OpenDoor.

Things have changed, however. According to OpenDoor’s official Twitter account, Apple has unilaterally removed OpenDoor from the China App Store without any notification (prior to removal and after removal).

The developers made numerous requests to Apple for an explanation without result for a month. RNW’s request for comment is still unanswered. However, following that request, Apple did finally officially notify the developer on August 28th, stating that the app “includes content that is illegal in China.”   

We have pasted below the notification email from Apple on August 28th. Notice that Apple used “will be removed from the China App Store” while in fact the OpenDoor was removed in mid-July.

This is not the first time Apple has censored apps especially for China. In 2009, Apple removed apps about the Dalai Lama.  In 2013, after state media in China criticized the company and Apple’s apology, Apple stepped up its efforts on censoring content. Apple began to remove apps that had been in the App Store for years. Apple emailed developers to tell them that their apps had been removed in the China App Store because of illegal content.

But this time, Apple’s censorship tactics have reached a whole new level. A tool that merely provides a window to freedom of speech but advocates no opinion itself has been removed.

From: App Review <>

Date: Wed, Aug 28, 2013

Subject: Contact Us - Not Be Limited(1210139) - General App Store Inquiry - 543808008

To: ***


Please include the line below in follow-up emails for this request.

Follow-up:  282706264



We are writing to notify you that your application, OpenDoor, will be removed from the China App Store because it includes content that is illegal in China, which is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines <>:


22.1     Apps must comply with all legal requirements in any location where they are made available to users. It is the developer's obligation to understand and conform to all local laws


While your app has been removed from the China App Store, it is still available in the App Stores for the other territories you selected in iTunes Connect.


If you have questions about the removal of your application, please contact App Review at Please include the App ID and the name of your application in your email request.


Best Regards,

App Review


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Mon, Aug 03, 2020

Announcing the Release of GreatFire Appmaker

GreatFire (, a China-focused censorship monitoring organization, is proud to announce that we have developed and released a new anti-censorship tool that will enable any blocked media outlet, blogger, human rights group, or civil society organization to evade censors and get their content onto the phones of millions of readers and supporters in China and other countries that censor the Internet.

GreatFire has built an Android mobile app creator, called “GreatFire AppMaker”, that can be used by organizations to unblock their content for users in China and other countries. Organizations can visit a website ( which will compile an app that is branded with the organization’s own logo and will feature their own, formerly blocked content. The app will also contain a special, censorship-circumventing web browser so that users can access the uncensored World Wide Web. The apps will use multiple strategies, including machine learning, to evade advanced censorship tactics employed by the Chinese authorities.  This project will work equally well in other countries that have China-like censorship restrictions. For both organizations and end users, the apps will be free, fast, and extremely easy to use.

This project was inspired by China-based GreatFire’s first-hand experience with our own FreeBrowser app ( and desire to help small NGOs who may not have the in-house expertise to circumvent Chinese censorship. GreatFire’s anti-censorship tools have worked in China when others do not. FreeBrowser directs Chinese internet users to normally censored stories from the app’s start page (

Fri, Jul 24, 2020

Apple, anticompetition, and censorship

On July 20, 2020, GreatFire wrote to all 13 members of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, requesting a thorough examination into Apple’s practice of censorship of its App Store, and an investigation into how the company collaborates with the Chinese authorities to maintain its unique position as one of the few foreign tech companies operating profitably in the Chinese digital market.  

This letter was sent a week before Apple CEO TIm Cook will be called for questioning in front of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. The CEOs of Amazon, Google and Facebook will also be questioned on July 27, as part of the Committee’s ongoing investigation into competition in the digital marketplace.

This hearing offers an opportunity to detail to the Subcommittee how Apple uses its closed operating ecosystem to not only abuse its market position but also to deprive certain users, most notably those in China, of their right to download and use apps related to privacy, secure communication, and censorship circumvention.

We hope that U.S. House representatives agree with our view that Apple should not be allowed to do elsewhere what would be considered as unacceptable in the U.S. Chinese citizens are not second class citizens. Private companies such as Apple compromise themselves and their self-proclaimed values of freedom and privacy when they collaborate with the Chinese government and its censors.

Mon, Jun 10, 2019

Apple Censoring Tibetan Information in China

Apple has a long history of censorship when it comes to information about Tibet. In 2009, it was revealed that several apps related to the Dalai Lama were not available in the China App Store. The developers of these apps were not notified that their apps were removed. When confronted with these instances of censorship, an Apple spokesperson simply said that the company “continues to comply with local laws”.

In December, 2017, at a conference in China, when asked about working with the Chinese authorities to censor the Apple App Store, Tim Cook proclaimed:

"Your choice is: do you participate, or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be. And my own view very strongly is you show up and you participate, you get in the arena because nothing ever changes from the sideline."

In the ten years since Apple was first criticized for working with the Chinese authorities to silence already marginalized voices, what has changed? Apple continues to strictly follow the censorship orders of the Chinese authorities. When does Tim Cook expect that his company will help to bring about positive change in China?

Based on data generated from, Apple has now censored 29 popular Tibetan mobile applications in the China App Store. Tibetan-themed apps dealing with news, religious study, tourism, and even games are being censored by Apple. A full list of the censored apps appear below.

Thu, Jun 06, 2019

Report Shines Spotlight on Apple’s Censorship Practices in China

The newest Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index makes recommendations on what companies and governments need to do in order to improve the protection of internet users’ human rights around the world. Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) works to promote freedom of expression and privacy on the internet by creating global standards and incentives for companies to respect and protect users’ rights.

In their 2019 Accountability Index, RDR looks at the policies of 24 of the world’s most important internet companies in respect to freedom of expression and privacy and highlights the companies that have made improvements and those companies that need to do more. RDR notes that:

Insufficient transparency makes it easier for private parties, governments, and companies themselves to abuse their power over online speech and avoid accountability.

In particular, the report highlights how Apple has abused their power over online speech, and notes instances of this in China. According to the report, Apple has not disclosed data around the content that it removes from its App Store when faced with requests from the government authorities.

While [Apple] disclosed data about government requests to restrict accounts, it disclosed no data about content removal requests, such as requests to remove apps from its App Store. Apple revealed little about policies and practices affecting freedom of expression, scoring below all other U.S. companies in this category.

The report makes intelligent and sensible recommendations for governments. However, the recommendations also highlight how difficult it is to have these discussions with governments like China’s.

Thu, Nov 30, 2017

About those 674 apps that Apple censored in China

Apple opened the door on its censorship practices in China - but just a crack.
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