When it comes to deciding whether an app should be offered in the App Store, Apple uses a vertical decision-making structure. The order and importance of Apple’s decision-making process runs counter to the normal structure of a legal system in any democratic society.
At the top of this scale of rules are the decisions of Apple CEO Tim Cook and Apple management, sometimes brought together in a committee called the App Store Review Board. Cook involves others to encourage collegiality and lend legitimacy to his decisions. Regardless of whether an application meets international standards, local law, or even developer guidelines, Tim Cook and Apple management have the right to determine the availability of any application.
Many applications which serve the public’s interest, host a pluralism of opinions, or strengthen democracy, have seen this sword of Damocles descend upon them. This was the case for the censorship of the New York Times application in 2017. The app’s removal from China’s App Store had nothing to do with compliance with Chinese law or a violation of Apple’s internal rules. This was merely a case of Apple aiding the efforts of the Chinese authorities to censor an independent and critical voice. Ultimately, it was Tim Cook who gave his approval for this baseless removal.
The application of billionaire Guo Wengui, the Chinese Communist Party critic who is self-exiled in the United States, was also removed from the Chinese App Store after the intervention of several senior Apple executives. One of these executives claimed, without providing proof, that the app’s content was illegal in China.
The second most important set of rules involved in the removal of apps is contained in the “App Store Review Guidelines”. These guidelines are used as the irrefutable justification for Apple to explain the censorship of any app. In fact, all decisions to remove apps from one, several, or all App Stores could technically be justified by these guidelines. The guidelines include a catch-all super law, which can apply to every censorship decision:
“We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.“
In 2015, Metadata+ and Ephemeral+, which both provided news alerts on drone attacks launched by the US military, were removed from all App Stores. In January 2021, the social network Parler was removed from all 155 App Stores for allegedly violating Apple’s vague and opaque rules.
It is now a well-established fact that Apple works closely with the most authoritarian regimes on the planet to ensure the economic sustainability of its operations. Also, it is becoming more and more commonplace for the firm to comply with the censorship requests of said governments. Apple justifies its political censorship decisions by invoking its obligation to “comply with the laws” of the countries in which it operates. Apple conveniently refuses to question the legality of the requests submitted to it by these regimes.
Thousands of apps, including several hundred VPNs, Tibetan and Uyghur religious and cultural apps, apps containing essays on politics, social media apps, and privacy tools have been blocked in China on charges of being illegal in the country.
In August 2021, Apple removed the gay social networking app Hornet from the App Store in Turkey, even though the court ruling used by the firm to justify its censorship did not require the removal of the application from its platform. On September 13, 2021, the tactical voting application of Russian political opponent Alexey Navalny, was removed by Apple in order to appease the authorities. It also aided Vladimir Putin, who was worried about the popular support enjoyed by his main opponent, who has been imprisoned since March 2021.
Meanwhile, human rights and international standards remain the least considered reasons for the removal of apps by Apple. Apple states its “Commitment to Human Rights” in its – almost hidden – human rights policy document. Although Apple has shown many times that when the ’legal” demands of repressive governments and human rights are at odds, the company will side with governments.
The end result is that there are a number of apps in Apple’s App Store which directly infringe on human rights, fundamental freedoms, and privacy, yet enjoy full availability in the App Store without fear of meddling by Apple.
The Saudi Arabia government-owned Absher let Saudi men track the movement of women and also allowed men to prevent women from leaving the country. A number of apps developed by a Chinese State-owned economic and paramilitary organization, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which has been sanctioned by the US government, remain in the App Store.
This chart reflects the inequity of how Apple applies international, national, and internal regulations and standards, and in particular the arbitrariness that prevails in their decision-making. We encourage Tim Cook to use this chart as a basis to find a coherent, fair, ethical, and responsible scale of norms.
But for that to happen, Apple must start by flipping its own scale of values upside down. Only then can Tim Cook say, hand on heart “We are not afraid to say that our values drive our curation decisions“.