Apple accused of censoring apps in Hong Kong and Russia • The Register

Apple accused of censoring apps in Hong Kong and Russia • The Register

Apple has been accused of selling out human rights for profit by cooperating with authoritarian censorship demands in China and Russia, according to two reports released 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 the free speech advocacy group GreatFire.

“As our two reports show, there are many examples of Apple’s censorship,” Benjamin Ismail, director of campaigns and advocacy at GreatFire and project director of GreatFire’s Apple Censorship project, said in a statement.

The report mentions “the disingenuousness of Apple’s self-proclaimed support for LGBTQ+ rights.”

“Apple’s temporary withdrawal from Russia after the start of the war in Ukraine, and Apple’s decision to move part of its production out of China, has not provided concrete evidence of any improvement in the situation in the App Store so far. For all we know, Apple is still willing to cooperate with repressive regimes.”

Ismail said he expects the reports will be used to try to convince lawmakers to pass antitrust laws aimed at curbing Apple’s App Store portal power — something European lawmakers may have accomplished with the recently approved Digital Markets Act.

The Hong Kong-focused Apps at Risk report claims 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 as of November 2022, the Hong Kong App Store lacked 2,370 apps available elsewhere. In China’s App Store 10,837 apps are missing and in Russia’s App Store the number is 2,754.

Many VPN apps have disappeared from the Hong Kong App Store, the report said. And over the past two years, it is 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 the government.

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The Apps at Risk report says Apple has failed to offer support for the right of people in Hong Kong to access information without restrictions and to express themselves online, even as the Chinese government has suppressed the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

“Apple has known about Beijing’s authoritarian preferences for decades,” the report said. “Apple’s response to the events in Hong Kong in recent years are not knee-jerk reactions. Apple’s response is aligned with its global business strategies, with a top priority 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 Hongkongers’ right to information and freedom of expression.

The Russia report explores differences in the way Russian and Chinese authorities enforce censorship requirements, but reaches similar conclusions about how Apple operates. It says that from 2018 to 2022, Apple appeared to comply with censorship requests from the Kremlin more easily.

“Apple’s compliance with censorship requests is best illustrated by cases of app removal from the iOS App Store,” the report said. “Russia’s innovative and sweeping crackdown has also led to censorship in software (LGBTQ+ watch faces), accessories (LGBTQ+ watch bands), software-based cartography (Crimea), protocols (Privat Relay), and even the design of iOS (Russian iOS).”

Citing Apple’s removal of LGBTQ+ apps for promoting state-sponsored homophobia, the Russia report points out “the disingenuousness of Apple’s self-proclaimed support for LGBTQ+ rights.”

Asked whether Apple’s deployment of end-to-end encryption in iCloud could change things, Ismail expressed skepticism.

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“We know nothing about how the data is stored in the 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 administration of the App Store (eg, public requests to remove apps, the App Store Review Board, etc.), Apple’s trademark is opacity.”

Ongoing influence

Ismail warned that the influence of the authorities in China and Russia over Apple will remain. “The relationship between these regimes and Apple remains asymmetric, and strongly favors the governments of the country where Apple wants to maintain its access to the market, build and sell its products,” he said, pointing to Apple’s Private Relay. , which never made it to China and was canceled in Russia.

However, Ismail expressed optimism that Apple may be forced to allow third-party app stores. This requirement, required under Europe’s Digital Markets Act, is also part of the Open App Markets Act, a bill that GreatFire has supported and US lawmakers have yet to pass.

“If you as a user are free to download and install apps from any store and the web, then the removal of apps by Apple at the behest of an oppressive government will have less impact on users,” Ismail explained. “Developers will still be able to update (and thus secure) their apps and offer them to users without control or intervention from Apple.”

“Furthermore, it should be easier for Apple to reject censorship claims by saying that users can still find the app targeted by the government outside the App Store. Ultimately, it could discourage the government from even making the claim against Apple.”

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“Of course, sideloading is not the perfect solution, and other stores may be targeted by repressive governments. The important part is letting users manage the device the way they want it to work. Having developers, publishers and customers subject to Apple’s decisions is very dangerous . That has been the case repeatedly over the past decade.”

“Apple has known about Beijing’s authoritarian preferences for decades”

Asked whether Apple’s rivals have handled the situation better, Ismail pointed to Google, which shut down its Chinese search engine in 2010 after it was hacked from the country.

Google and Twitter, he said, are doing much better when it comes to transparency, citing an Apple censorship report from April “showing that Apple lies in its Transparency reports and deliberately hides the extent of app inaccessibility and the reality of the 175 App Stores it drifting all over the world.”

“It may be time for Apple to consider the possibility that they are doing more harm by being present in China than by not being there,” Ismail said. “In its human rights policy, Apple claims ‘Our approach is based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’, but all the principles in that UN document are the exact opposite of Apple’s policies.”

Apple did not respond to a request for comment. ®

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