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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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 https://applecensorship.com, 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.

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.

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