About those 674 apps that Apple censored in China

Apple’s written response to questions posed by Senators Leahy and Cruz marks the first time that Apple has been transparent regarding their censorship practices in China. When Apple started to comply with Chinese government censorship demands, they signalled to the world that freedom of speech is not one of the company’s values. Apple argues otherwise, frequently repeating that the company must adhere to local laws in all markets where they operate. With this response, Apple both simplifies what is a complicated matter and sets a dangerous precedent.

In their letter, Apple again repeats the mantra that “engagement will help the opening up of China”. How long has Apple been operating in China? Since they formally entered the market in 2008, Apple has been using this same statement and the situation has only gotten worse. Can Apple honestly say that, when it comes to freedom of access to information, that things have improved during their decade of operations in China?

[Apple has also long stated that they wish to improve the working conditions of those in China who manufacture their products. In 2011, it was noted that “Apple's success has been built literally on the backs of Chinese workers, many of them children…”. Apple is still looking into these improvements.]

Apple’s letter makes it clear that censorship became much harder to defeat in 2017. Apple removed 674 VPN apps from the China App Store this year alone. Kudos to Apple for providing transparency on VPN censorship in China and kudos to the two senators whose letter forced this admission. But Apple is providing no transparency on the other apps that the company is censoring in China. Sometime in October, 2017, Apple removed Skype from the China App Store. In late 2016, Apple removed the Chinese New York Times from the App Store.

Apple argues that they are only following the letter of the law while operating in China. “Adhering to local laws” does not equal a values-based decision. On the contrary, it is the default decision of a company without values. Turned on it’s head, Apple could equally justify its lack of censorship in the US market by blaming US laws that protect freedom of speech. The degree of freedom of speech that Apple stands for is the exact legal minimum imposed on it by laws around the world. The company itself does nothing to defend freedom of speech, or speak up when these freedoms are violated.

Because of the stature of Apple (economically, not morally, nor ethically), the decisions that Tim Cook makes affect many other companies. If Apple agrees to censorship, then the pressure builds on other phone manufacturers to agree to censor. But the Chinese authorities then use Apple as an example for other companies in other sectors. Foreign and domestic news media organizations, academia, content-driven websites, educational institutions and book publishers are all told to follow Apple’s example, leaving them with little choice but to complicity submit to self-censorship.

If all companies followed Apple’s example of taking censorship orders from Beijing, any attempts by Chinese to bypass this censorship would be made impossible. This is because information that is censored inside the Great Firewall of China survives outside the wall thanks to the support, or at least tolerance, of internet companies outside of China. If these companies all acted like Apple, there would be no more circumvention, no more uncensored Chinese information, anywhere on the global internet.

Take greatfire.org as an example. The site is blocked by the great firewall (GFW). The only way to access this content inside the GFW is to use a circumvention tool. These tools - whether commercial or free - are themselves operated by organizations that also have to balance their need to comply with laws around the world and their own sets of values. The difference is that, so far, they come to a different conclusion than Apple does. They decide that, even though a user is located in mainland China, and even though that user wants to access content which is blocked in China, the user should be allowed to do so, so they help that user to get access. Their belief in the value of freedom of access to information overrides their need to adhere to censorship laws around the world. This is what believing in a value means.

Circumvention tools themselves depend on a range of other internet service operators including web hosting providers, content delivery networks and domain registrars. If these companies all decided, like Apple, to comply with Chinese censorship demands, operating a circumvention tool that works in China would be impossible.

In other words, if other companies follow Apple’s example, circumventing censorship in mainland China becomes an impossibility. But it will not stop there. The Chinese Communist Party does not aim to just control access inside the borders of mainland China. Apple has in fact already helped the authorities expand control of its citizens to a worldwide level. With the way that Apple’s system is designed, if a user is registered as a Chinese user with a Chinese credit card, then when that user travels outside of China, they are still subject to the same information controls. Even though that user may have travelled to, say, the US, that user will still not be able to install a VPN app on their phone.

In principle, this is no different than Apple restricting Chinese users from accessing websites blocked in China when travelling. If Apple does indeed start doing this, we should be outraged, but not surprised, as the moral boundary has already been crossed.

If other companies implement the same policies, it could mean, for example, that a Chinese person currently in the US would not be able to watch a movie on Netflix, if that movie is banned in China. It could mean that a Chinese person would not be able to buy a book on Amazon, if that book were banned in China. It could mean that Facebook would implement keyword-based censorship for Chinese users, when they are accessing Facebook while physically in the US. In short, it could mean that while Chinese people could travel outside of China, the complicit cooperation of companies around the world with the Chinese authorities would ensure that these globetrotters would never escape the censorship controls imposed by their government.

It is also important to note that by the letter of the law, Apple is in fact helping to break the laws of China. Article 35 of The Constitution of The People's Republic of China cleary states that "citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration".

Apple is not adhering to local laws when it removes apps from the China App Store. They are in essence just greasing the palms of the authorities with what they believe is a goodwill gesture - 674 times! What Apple is coming to understand with each passing day is that once the palms are greased, there is a never-ending line of outstretched hands with dry, flaky skin, all waiting for their handout. The only thing that will prevent Apple from complicity meeting every demand of every Chinese official is the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Today Apple is removing VPN apps from the App Store. Tomorrow Apple will be ensuring that an umbrella of censorship hangs over every Chinese, in any part of world. All in the name of “adhering to local laws wherever they do business”.

The Economist recently declared China’s president Xi Jinping “the world’s most powerful leader”. The Chinese Communist Party is using its growing power to change the state of the internet and freedom of speech on a global level. This demands that we all ask ourselves what we believe in. The future of freedom of speech requires people and organizations braver and more sincere than Tim Cook and Apple.

Based on Apple’s response, we have some additional questions for Apple. We also note that David Kaye, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, also posed questions for Apple in August, 2017. David’s questions are incorporated and noted in the list of questions below along with unanswered questions from the original letter to Apple. We have also posed new questions based on Apple’s latest response.

1. Which trade associations did Apple join in providing comments to the Chinese authorities on the China Cybersecurity Law? What were Apple’s contributions to these joint efforts? (It is also worth reading David Kaye’s formal comments regarding the Cybersecurity Law.)

2. Which trade associations did Apple join in providing comments to the Chinese authorities on the Notice on Regulating Business Behavior in the Cloud Services Market? What were Apple’s contributions to these joint efforts? What concerns did Apple share about the provisions covering VPN services? What concerns did Apple share about the adverse impact these provisions would have on the free flow of data in China?

3. Of the 674 VPN apps that Apple removed from the China App Store, were all 674 VPNs listed on the order from the Chinese authorities? If not, did the authorities ask for more or less VPNs to be removed from the App Store? If more or less, what was Apple’s rationale for removing / not removing the additional VPNs from the China App Store?

4. [From David Kaye]: Did Apple consider options other than application removal to protect the rights of Chinese consumers? For example, did Apple seek to restrict the number or types of Apps that were taken down?

5. Apple removed 674 VPN apps from the China App Store this year. Was there one request or multiple requests from the Chinese authorities? In which month/months was/were the request/requests received?

6. [From David Kaye]: In making legal assessments, if any, did Apple take into account China’s obligations under international human rights law? In making your assessment about proceeding with the takedown from the App Store, did Apple take into account international instruments such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights or the Global Network Initiative’s Principles on Freedom of Expression?

7. [From David Kaye]: Did Apple provide Chinese customers with information about what Apps were taken down, and the reasons for such removals?

8. While Apple states that it has made its views on VPN apps clear to the Chinese authorities, has Apple made any formal request with the Chinese authorities to reintroduce VPN apps to the China App Store?

9. Can Apple confirm that the hundreds of VPN apps that remain in the China App Store all meet with the approval of the Chinese authorities?

10. How many other apps has Apple removed from the China App Store since the China App Store first opened? How many requests has Apple received from the Chinese authorities to remove apps? How many times has Apple refused to remove apps from the China App Store? What number of apps were protected by these refusals?

11. [From David Kaye]:  How does Apple make such decisions about whether to restrict App Store content in the face of government requests such as the instant one? Apart from your General Counsel, which other divisions participate in such decision-making?


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Thu, Aug 10, 2023

1.4 million people used FreeBrowser to circumvent the Great Firewall of Turkmenistan

Since 2021, the authorities in Turkmenistan have taken exceptional measures to crack down on the use of circumvention tools. Citizens have been forced to swear on the Koran that they will not use a VPN. Circumvention tool websites have been systematically blocked. Arbitrary searches of mobile devices have also taken place and have even targeted school children and teachers.

The government has also blocked servers hosting VPNs which led to “near complete” internet shutdowns on several occasions in 2022. Current reports indicate that 66 hosting providers, 19 social networks and messaging platforms, and 10 leading content delivery networks (CDNs), are blocked in the country. The government presumably is unconcerned about the negative economic impact that such shutdowns can cause.

Fri, Mar 18, 2022

Well-intentioned decisions have just made it easier for Putin to control the Russian Internet

This article is in large part inspired by a recent article from Meduza (in Russian).

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russian users have had problems accessing government websites and online banking clients. Browsers began to mark these sites as unsafe and drop the connection. The reason is the revocation of digital security certificates by foreign certificate authorities (either as a direct consequence of sanctions or as an independent, good will move); without them, browsers do not trust sites and “protect” their users from them.

However, these actions, caused - or at least triggered by - a desire to punish Russia for their gruesome actions in Ukraine, will have long-lasting consequences for Russian netizens.

Digital certificates are needed to confirm that the site the user wants to visit is not fraudulent. The certificates contain encryption keys to establish a secure connection between the site and the user. It is very easy to understand whether a page on the Internet is protected by a certificate. One need just look at the address bar of the browser. If the address begins with the https:// prefix, and there is a lock symbol next to the address, the page is protected. By clicking on this lock, you can see the status of the connection, the name of the Certification Authority (CA) that issued the certificate, and its validity period.

There are several dozen commercial and non-commercial organizations in the world that have digital root certificates, but 3/4 of all certificates are issued by only five of the largest companies. Four of them are registered in the USA and one is registered in Belgium.

Mon, Aug 03, 2020

Announcing the Release of GreatFire AppMaker

GreatFire (https://en.greatfire.org/), 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 (https://appmaker.greatfire.org/) 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 (https://freebrowser.org/en) 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 (http://manyvoices.news/).

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 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.

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