GreatFire started monitoring Apple’s censorship in November 2013, when Apple decided to remove
GreatFire’s “FreeWeibo” application from the Chinese App Store. The FreeWeibo app allowed users in China to access the government-blocked “FreeWeibo.com” website, which re-publishes messages that have been censored on the Chinese social network Sina Weibo.
The reason we originally chose to develop an iOS app for Apple users was that we believed that Apple was the kind of company that would support our goals. However, less than two months after uploading our app to the App Store, it was deleted by Apple, at the request of the Chinese authorities. Apple said FreeWeibo included “content that is illegal in China, which is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines”. Apple did not even wait for the intervention of any Chinese judicial authority to determine if our app had actually broken any Chinese law. It collaborated with the Chinese authorities and dealt with our app the same way it has continued to deal with many more apps: by imposing arbitrary and politically motivated censorship.
2013 saw numerous similar cases in which Apple deceptively used the pretext of complying with local laws to remove apps from its Chinese App Store. “JingDian ShuCheng”(经典书城), an app providing nonfiction books including several from multiple award-winning writer and scholar Wang Lixiong (王力雄) was censored. A few months later, Apple removed “OpenDoor”, a free app that provided users with a randomized IP address to keep their browsing habits anonymous and shielded from Chinese government censors. Again, the unsubstantiated reason was “illegal content”. These examples closely follow the removal of apps of independent media such as the Hong Kong-based iSun Affairs and U.S based NTDTV.
Apple has since continued to censor apps on its China App Store, on most occasions without offering the developers any reason other than “your app contains illegal content”. The scale of the removal of apps has continuously grown to reach the level of mass censorship by 2017, when the firm removed more than a thousand VPN apps from its China App Store.
A recent example of censorship by Apple is the removal of HKmap.live, a crowdsourced mapping application that was used by pro-democracy protestors and Hong Kong citizens in 2019. No specific local law was referenced to justify the removal of the app.
Today, news apps including The New York Times, the BBC, Yahoo Japan, Radio France International, Hong Kong-based Apple Daily, and the Tibet Times, are unavailable to Chinese citizens.