GreatFire asks Apple about App Store management in China (open letter)

25 May 2021

Tim Cook

Apple, Inc.

1 Infinite Loop

Cupertino, CA 95014 USA

Subject: Apple’s policy regarding China’s App Store management and user privacy.

Dear Tim Cook,

We are writing to you following the profoundly concerning revelations published by the New York Times on May 17, 2021. 

While we have been aware of (and have strongly denounced) Apple’s arbitrary management of its App Store and the double standards by which it operates in countries such as China, new information has been brought to light regarding Apple’s inability to uphold its international human rights commitments regarding freedom of expression, access to information, and privacy, especially as it relates to Apple customers in China.  

What is the “China hide process”?

According to Apple’s own internal report, the company has established a “China hide process,” which involves a team of “Chinese language specialists” who have been trained to censor and remove apps which deal with certain topics in the Chinese App Store. Internal communications also reveal the existence of a “China sensitivities list” as well as a “Chinese App Store Removal wiki page.”

Equally disturbing is the fact that former App Store director, Phillip Shoemaker, admitted that “Apple lawyers in China gave his team a list of topics that couldn’t appear in apps in the country, including Tiananmen Square and independence for Tibet and Taiwan.” 

Taken together, these elements depict the existence of an internal and sophisticated censorship mechanism dedicated to controlling content in China’s App Store. Apple systematically answers that its censorship measures are meant to fulfill its obligations under Chinese law. But these processes and blacklists clearly indicate that Apple is proactively removing apps from the China App Store, even before the company receives requests from the Chinese authorities. 

As you are likely aware, under Chinese law, there are no “illegal topics.” Specific content and opinions are forbidden such as calling for Tibet’s independence but not the mention of Tibet itself. In fact, freedom of speech, publication, assembly, protest, and religious freedoms are protected by China’s constitution in articles 35 and 36. When you approved the decision to remove the New York Times application back in 2017, you actually violated the Chinese Constitution. When you preemptively remove apps that are not illegal under Chinese law, but merely offend the Chinese government, you demonstrate that Apple’s real concern is appeasing the Chinese government instead of following Chinese law. 

How many apps have been removed from the China App Store?

We are aware that Apple releases transparency reports where it details the number of apps removed pursuant to government requests. However, Apple does not release figures regarding apps it removes either through informal government channels or pre-emptively, such as through the “China hide process.” 

In its most recent two years of transparency reports, Apple states that it has removed 1,217 apps from the China App Store. GreatFire’s AppleCensorship App Store Monitor, however, currently shows that at least 5,781 apps which are available in other App Stores are unavailable in China, while the New York Times, which conducted its own analysis, reported that almost 55,000 apps have been removed from the Chinese App Store since 2017. 

In fact, such opacity in Apple’s App Store management seems to be the default rule. The general public, including Apple customers, only become aware of the extent of censorship when the company is pressured to be more transparent.

Whether in so-called “transparency reports,” or in statements and public correspondence, Apple’s figures not only remain vague, but also seem to contradict themselves and empirical observations. 

According to the New York Times, Apple said that it had taken down 70 news apps in response to Chinese government demands since 2017. Yet the Times counted more than 600 news apps unavailable in China. In April this year, responding to a letter sent by US representatives Mike Lee and Ken Buck, Apple Senior Director of Government Affairs Timothy Powderly explained that Apple reviews more than 100,000 apps per week and rejects about 40% of them. Of those rejected apps, 80% ultimately make it in the App Store, which implies that 8% of all reviewed apps are definitively rejected. 

According to our calculations based on those figures, on an annual basis, that equals approximately 416,000 apps being removed or rejected from the App Store. 

Apple, however, only provides the reasoning behind the removal of several thousand apps, leaving the public in the dark regarding its rationale behind the removal or rejection of hundreds of thousands of apps per year. 

In a self-praising statement released by Apple on May 11th, coincidentally published during the Epic v. Apple trial, Apple claimed that it rejected nearly one million problematic new apps, in addition to removing nearly one million app updates, for technical reasons. Apple finds it sufficient to vaguely enunciate categories of reasons why apps get removed. But in light of the censorship mechanisms at play in the Chinese App Store, we cannot but wonder if we are yet to discover that the scale of arbitrariness is much larger than we previously imagined.

For those reasons, we are asking you the following questions:

Can you explain how the “China hide process” is not a violation of Apple’s self-proclaimed values and ethical rules? Do you believe that the “China hide process” is a betrayal of commitments made by Apple to its shareholders via the adoption of its human rights policy

What is the list of topics and individuals that are included in the “China hide process?”

How many “Chinese language specialists” work on the “China hide process?”

Why were you personally involved in the decision to remove the New York Times app? Was the removal of this app, like the removal of thousands of other apps, a simple matter of complying with Chinese law?

What role do Apple lawyers in China play in the curation of the App Store? 

Do others, such as employees from the government affairs department or those involved in the redaction of your human rights policy, play a role in these decisions?

What is the legal basis for the removal of apps such as the New York Times, or dozens of apps related to Taiwan and Tibet? Which Chinese laws were those apps infringing? 

What is the rationale behind the removal of apps even before any request by the Chinese government is made?

In addition, we are requesting that Apple release precise statistics regarding the apps that it removes from every App Store worldwide and in particular give information on:

  • The number of apps that have been removed from the China App Store since 2017;
  • the breakdown by app category  (i.e. News, Reference, Productivity, Games, etc.)
  • The number of apps concerning China’s religious minorities that have been removed;
  • The number of apps related to Hong Kong and Hong Kong protests that have been removed.

We are requesting that Apple truly show transparency by:

  • publicly sharing  the “China sensitivities list;”
  • publicly sharing  the “App Store Removal” wiki page;
  • publicly sharing the list of “topics that can’t appear in apps”  elaborated by Apple’s lawyers in China  if it is different from the lists above.
  • Publicly sharing a list of all apps removed from the China App Store.

Yours sincerely,

GreatFire

Share it

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn