To mitigate the harms of censorship, internet freedom organizations Fight for the Future (USA) and GreatFire (China) call on Apple to end the many abusive practices of its App Store, none of which pass scrutiny.
Bombshell after bombshell dropped from the lips of Apple’s representatives during the first week of the trial between Epic and Apple—exposing a human rights disaster shrouded in security theater. Apple’s testimony has been revelatory in terms of the company’s eagerness to accede to authoritarian and corporate interests, complete disregard for meaningful review of apps submitted to their store, and in terms of the concrete numbers on massive security breaches that affected millions of people.
Apple’s willingness to censor apps on behalf of authoritarian governments has been well-documented, and enables human rights abuses around the world. This week, they unsuccessfully argued that their walled garden approach provides security and quality of experience to their customers. Unfortunately, Apple’s power to unilaterally censor human rights tools is one of the worst manifestations of their monopoly. Far from keeping customers safe, Apple is putting people in harm’s way by denying them modern tools of resistance and safety.
During the trial, Apple posited that customers who are dissatisfied with the App Store can just get a new device. That is a deeply privileged perspective. iOS customers invest a significant amount of money in hardware and software, in addition to time and effort to learn how to use their devices. Leaving Apple’s ecosystem comes at prohibitive cost for many. A significant number of people who would like the freedom of choice that comes with other vendors are trapped in their costly iOS investment.
The choice to leave the App Store is fiscally impossible for developers as well—for many, leaving the App Store means renouncing their main source of revenue. Apple’s monopoly works against the creative freedom of developers by being the only meaningful option available.
Unfortunately, despite their massively profitable monopoly, Apple is unable to keep up with even the most basic review of apps submitted for their store. App Store reviewers are not required to have substantive technical skill, and yet are the only safeguard between malicious apps and over a billion people. Apple’s 500-person review team must process 100,000 apps per week—an astronomical amount that truly demonstrates the fallacy of their walled garden approach.
Just because the Apple review team verifies that an app launches without crashing does not mean it is safe from security breaches, frauds, and scams. On the stand, Apple’s own security professionals admitted that the company’s app review process would not deter a sophisticated attacker, and listed multiple examples of approved apps that not only defrauded users, but posed grave health dangers. These harms are happening to millions of users.
During this first week of trial, Apple admitted the stunning full extent of a 2015 XcodeGhost malware attack that infected 2,500+ apps on the App Store. Over 128 million customers were affected: 70 million in China, and 18 million in the US.
The App Store is pure security theater that only creates a false sense of safety among people who use it. The iOS operating system, just like the operating system of any other digital device, is what ultimately determines customer safety. This is why Apple’s walled garden doesn’t extend to Mac laptop users. Apple’s primary argument for the App Store is hollow.
Through the process of the US legal system, we have definitively learned that the App Store is not, as its website says, “designed to be a safe and trusted place for users to discover apps created by talented developers around the world,” and that some things, such as profit, are indeed “more important than maintaining users’ trust.”
In his testimony last Monday, economist David Evans noted that Apple’s App Store profits are “vastly higher” than most online stores. We have been giving Apple the power to decide what news we read, what shows we watch, what games we play, and what digital tools we use for too long—all while contributing to Apple’s astronomical profits. It is time to end Apple’s monopoly and reclaim our freedoms and fundamental rights.
“None of Apple’s attempts to convince us that they act fairly in a highly competitive environment can pass scrutiny,” added Benjamin Ismail, of GreatFire’s AppleCensorship.com project. “Apple’s behavior is authoritarian and one only needs to read the App Store review guidelines to see the company’s claims itself. There is no competition between Apple and other companies when it comes to the App Store. Apple owns the App Store, which is the only marketplace for iOS devices, and exercises its right to life and death over apps, sometimes to axe a competitor and others to please repressive regimes. In the latter cases, Apple’s right might literally become one of life and death when applied to Chinese activists, which is terrifying but first and foremost intolerable”.
“When one of the largest companies in the world is abusing one billion people and a whole ecosystem of creators, no one should tell people to ‘just buy a new phone,’” added Lia Holland (she/they) Campaigns and Communications Director with Fight for the Future. “Big Tech companies have been allowed to reap unfathomable profits by decimating human rights and exploiting creative people. A whole generation of innovators who grew up on inspiring stories of how Steve Jobs thought outside the box are being denied the right to do so themselves—and a whole generation of activists in authoritarian countries are being harmed in the name of eking out even more profit. Apple’s security charade has gone on for far too long.”
“This issue has largely been portrayed as a spat between big companies: mobile giants like Apple and Google vs app giants like Epic and Spotify”, said Evan Greer, Deputy Director at Fight for the Future (she/her). “But this issue is much bigger than that: it’s about whether the future of technology is open and accessible or locked down into walled gardens that benefit incumbents and elites. Apple’s stranglehold over what software can run on iPhones creates a choke point that governments have used to crack down on political dissent, target marginalized people like LGBTQ folks, and worse. App store monopolies aren’t just a competition issue, they’re a human rights issue.”
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