OpenDoor Shut in Apple's Chinese App Store

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 <appreview@apple.com>

Date: Wed, Aug 28, 2013

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

To: ***@opendoorapp.com

 

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

Follow-up:  282706264

 

Hello,

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 <https://developer.apple.com/appstore/resources/approval/guidelines.html>:

 

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 appreview@apple.com. Please include the App ID and the name of your application in your email request.

 

Best Regards,

App Review

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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.

Tue, May 23, 2017

Is China establishing cyber sovereignty in the United States?

Last week Twitter came under attack from a DDoS attack orchestrated by the Chinese authorities. While such attacks are not uncommon for websites like Twitter, this one proved unusual. While the Chinese authorities use the Great Firewall to block harmful content from reaching its citizens, it now uses DDoS attacks to take down content that appears on websites beyond its borders. For the Chinese authorities, it is not simply good enough to “protect” the interests of Chinese citizens at home - in their view of cyber sovereignty, any content that might harm China’s interests must be removed, regardless of where the website is located.

And so last week the Chinese authorities determined that Twitter was the target. In particular, the authorities targeted the Twitter account for Guo Wengui (https://twitter.com/KwokMiles), the rebel billionaire who is slowly leaking information about corrupt Chinese government officials via his Twitter account and through his YouTube videos. Guo appeared to ramp up his whistle-blowing efforts last week and the Chinese authorities, in turn, ramped up theirs.

via https://twitter.com/KwokMiles/status/863689935798374401

Mon, Dec 12, 2016

China is the obstacle to Google’s plan to end internet censorship

It’s been three years since Eric Schmidt proclaimed that Google would chart a course to ending online censorship within ten years. Now is a great time to check on Google’s progress, reassess the landscape, benchmark Google’s efforts against others who share the same goal, postulate on the China strategy and offer suggestions on how they might effectively move forward.

flowers on google china plaque

Flowers left outside Google China’s headquarters after its announcement it might leave the country in 2010. Photo: Wikicommons.

What has Google accomplished since November 2013?

The first thing they have accomplished is an entire rebranding of both Google (now Alphabet) and Google Ideas (now Jigsaw). Throughout this blog post, reference is made to both new and old company names.

Google has started to develop two main tools which they believe can help in the fight against censorship. Jigsaw’s DDoS protection service, Project Shield, is effectively preventing censorship-inspired DDoS attacks and recently helped to repel an attack on Brian Krebs’ blog. The service is similar to other anti-DDoS services developed by internet freedom champions and for-profit services like Cloudflare.

Thu, Nov 24, 2016

Facebook: Please, not like this

Facebook is considering launching a censorship tool that would enable the world’s biggest social network to “enter” the China market. Sadly, nobody will be surprised by anything that Mark Zuckerberg decides to do in order to enter the China market. With such low expectations, Facebook is poised to usurp Apple as China’s favorite foreign intelligence gathering partner. If the company launches in China using this strategy they will also successfully erase any bargaining power that other media organizations may hold with the Chinese authorities.

Tue, Jul 05, 2016

GreatFire.org 现在开始测试VPN在中国的速度和稳定性

在中国有一个普遍观念,如果你有一个可以使用的VPN,那么你应该保持沉默。就信息自由而言,这种观念的问题在于获取知识竟成了一种秘密。今天,我们推出一个项目,希望能够摧毁这种模型。

我们最新的网站,翻墙中心,目的在于实时提供那些能够在中国使用的翻墙方案的信息和数据。在2011年以来我们就已经开始收集在中国被屏蔽的网站,现在我们也将增加那些可用的VPN和其他翻墙工具。

我们发布翻墙中心主要有四个目的。

我们的首要目标是助长使用翻墙工具的国人的数量。通过分享我们这些工具的信息和数据,我们希望对更广泛的受众展示那些工具时可以使用的。

我们的第二个目标是通过带来工具性能的透明化来提升中国用户的翻墙体验。我们将会测试工具的速度(流行网站的加载速度)和稳定性(流行网站加载成功的程度)。

我们开发速度测试的目的是要真实反映用户的体验。当用户在网站测速时,浏览器在后台会从10个世界上最流行的网站上下载一些资源文件。根据Alexa排名,这些网站分别是Google, Facebook, YouTube, Baidu, Amazon, Yahoo, Wikipedia, QQ, Twitter and Microsoft Live。速度的结果是简单的计算下载文件文件的大小和下载所需的时间。我们同样也会验证下载的文件是否完整。如果文件的内容是错误的或者在40秒内无法完成下载,我们会标记为失败。这个数据被我们用来生成另一个重要指标-稳定性。

其他的速度测试工具仅仅是通过发送数据到它们自己的服务器来测量上传和下载的速度。这种数据无法反应用户的体验,因为正常的浏览器通常会频繁的发送一系列的请求(而不是上传或下载一个大文件)到许多的服务器,而不止是一个。

我们的第二个指标 - 稳定性 - 是其他的服务通常不会测试的。一个健康的互联网连接应该达到100%的稳定性,除非有人在测试中把网线拔了。但是在中国使用翻墙工具却不是这样。任何时候连接都有可能变得不稳定或十分缓慢。根据请求的大小,最终的地点和代理的方式,一些请求有可能会失败。比较服务的稳定性要比比较速度更加重要。

你可以测试任意的翻墙工具,列表之外的也可以。中国的VPN用户也可以测试他们的工具,测试结果也会添加到数据库中。这些数据都将会对所有人开放。实时的在中国测试是非常重要的,因为VPN随时都可能被封锁或解封。我们欢迎任何的关于测试过程的反馈。有技术能力的用户也可以通过审查我们的javascript代码来获悉我们的测试是如何工作的。

我们郑重的邀请翻墙工具的开发者们向我们提供测试过程的反馈。我们的第三个目标是帮助这些开发人员改进他们的产品,让更多的选择适用于中国的顾客。此外,越多的工具可以工作,就意味着中国当局对翻墙的打击就会越难。

中国的用户都知道,在过去的18个月中当局加紧了对翻墙工具的攻击。而翻墙中心将会吹响反击的号角。反其道而行之,让这不再成为秘密。我们要鼓励人们分享翻墙工具可以工作的信息。

我们的第四个目标就是要为GreatFire.org创造收益。目前GreatFire仍然依靠世界各地的热心人士和组织的捐款。我们希望减少对这些机构的依赖,并探寻GreatFire.org自给自足的道路。用户只需到翻墙中心就能购买任意一款我们目前在测试的付费工具。GreatFire将作为这些工具在中国的经销商,因此VPN供应商会给予我们每个零售的一部分。用户也不必在中国购买这些翻墙服务。

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