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Apple Censorship
Banned Apps in China are Apps at Risk in Hong Kong
2023-03-22 10:41

Following up on its research on Hong Kong's App Store, AppleCensorship publishes a report focusing on apps belonging to “sensitive categories” which are unavailable in mainland China, and verifies their availability in Hong Kong's App Store.

On December 22, 2022, AppleCensorship released a report highlighting Apple’s censorship of its Hong Kong’s App Store and the company’s many compromises with Beijing which have impacted freedom of information and expression in the special administrative region.

The report investigates Apple’s censorship in Hong Kong’s App Store and assesses the compromises that Apple has made to safeguard its relationship with China and maintain access to the market. As human rights and fundamental freedoms in the territory shrink, including digital rights, Apple has been reluctant to publicly commit to uphold user rights to access information freely and express their views online.

Read the December 2022 report: Apps at Risk: Apple’s censorship and compromises in Hong Kong

The report shows that on a number of occasions, Apple has complied with demands to censor content deemed in violation of local laws or simply critical of Beijing. The report also highlights a number of individual apps, including Hong Kong based media and social platforms, at risk of being targeted by the authorities and therefore removed by Apple.

Some of the key findings of the report are as follows:

  While Hong Kong’s App Store remains relatively free compared to China’s App Store, a series of tests conducted in 2022 reveal that Hong Kong’s App Store is more restrictive than other App Stores considered “free”. The unavailability of apps in the Hong Kong App Store is higher than most of the 173 App Stores monitored by AppleCensorship.

In November 2022, a surprisingly high number of VPN and private browsing apps (more than 50) were found to be unavailable in Hong Kong’s App Store.

A number of apps related to media and information have been removed globally over the last two years, raising the possibility that self-censorship or censorship by Apple on behalf of the authorities is affecting the global availability of apps.

Apple has not made any public commitment to uphold Hong Kongers’ fundamental rights to access information and express their opinions online. If the Chinese authorities were to increase digital censorship in the region, nobody knows how Apple will respond.

Goals of the survey

In this short study of mainland China’s App Store, AppleCensorship seeks to explore apps belonging to “sensitive categories” which are unavailable in mainland China and to verify their availability in Hong Kong App Store. Such sensitive categories include apps which are related to:

  • Tibet, Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama
  • Uyghurs, Uyghur language, culture and religion
  • Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and Private browsing apps
  • Religion: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and other religions and religious groups
  • Media and Information: News, and other apps with informative content
  • Social media: online forums, social networking apps
  • Dating apps & LGBTQ+ apps
  • Privacy and digital security

The goal is to establish reference lists to evaluate the current situation of Hong Kong’s App Store. These lists can also be used in the future in order to monitor the evolution of freedom of expression and information in Hong Kong’s App Store beyond the potential removal of the most popular apps.

To that end, we seek to obtain lists of apps where we believe that Chinese national laws or government intervention (through its Cyberspace Administration or other official organ) are the most probable causes for app unavailability. Some parameters such as apps’ availability worldwide, apps’ categories, content and functionality were taken into account to ensure a low probability that the apps are unavailable in mainland China for coincidental reasons (e.g. developer’s choice to release the app in one or few App Stores).

The nature of the apps, the topics or functions to which they are related, and the already established facts regarding the Chinese government’s censorship of Apple’s App Store and products (e.g. notorious cases of censorship, censored keywords), were used as parameters to pinpoint apps which are unavailable because of government-led censorship. This is particularly true for all VPN apps, for which a systemic categorical ban was confirmed by Apple itself in 2017.


China’s list of unavailable apps

For each of the 175 App Stores it monitors, Apple Censorship’s App Store Monitor (ASM) maintains lists of apps currently unavailable. Mainland China’s list currently includes more than 10,000 apps. Such a list could have been used as a starting point for this research. However, we decided to identify sensitive apps in mainland China’s App Store using a different exploratory method - by searching the App Store directly, using sensitive keywords and testing at the same time availability in both mainland China and Hong Kong’s App Stores. Such an approach also allows us to verify the efficiency of keyword-based “live searches” in the App Store, as well as to estimate the performance of the App Store Monitor’s algorithm, which currently conducts around 15,000 tests per day in the App Store worldwide.

As a new version of AppleCensorship.com was recently launched, we are progressively “tagging” apps with multiple keywords, thus creating custom-made categories of apps (similar to those used in the present research). When a majority of apps included in China’s list of unavailable apps have been tagged, it will then be possible to extract “relevant” apps from the list without needing to verify the content of the apps one by one.

Exploring mainland China’s App Store using sensitive keywords

We searched apps unavailable in China’s App Store by looking for sensitive apps in other App Stores (primarily U.S. and Hong Kong) while testing for their availability in mainland China’s App Store at the same time. This allows us to identify apps which respond to multiple criteria at once:

1. The apps’ title and/or content are related to the keyword used in input. For example:

 Voice of Tibet (keyword: Tibet), or 84000 (keywords: Tibetan / Buddhism)

2. All apps that are selected are unavailable in mainland China’s App Store.

3. When searching within Hong Kong’s App Store, the apps which are listed in keyword search results are amongst the most popular apps used in the territory.

4. Additionally, for each app selected, AppleCensorship’s team verifies the unavailability of the app in other App Stores where it has been tested:

a) In many cases, the identified app is only unavailable in China, which increases the probability of a targeted block as the reason for unavailability.

b) In other cases, the app is also unavailable in a limited number of App Stores. When this is the case, we select apps which are also unavailable in App Stores of countries known to restrict online freedom of information and to severely repress human rights.

c) Apps which are widely unavailable and which do not seem to offer sensitive content or functionality, were excluded during the search.

5. In some cases, apps belonging to the sensitive categories investigated by AppleCensorship were found to be unavailable in both mainland China and Hong Kong’s App Stores. Those apps were included to highlight the potential extension of censorship policies enforced by Apple in mainland China, to Hong Kong.

The creation of the “sensitive categories” and classification of apps within those categories are merely a way to present the data and reflect the method we used to identify apps using the App Store Monitor. For each category, keywords relating to the topics or functions encompassed by the categories were used. For example, to search apps relating to Tibet, keywords such as “Tibet”, “Lhasa”, “Dalai Lama”, “Buddhism” or “西藏” (“Tibet” in Mandarin), were used to search apps within the App Store. The ASM is able to provide up to 200 results and presents the apps in the same order as they would be presented to a user searching for apps on an iOS device in his/her own country.

Some apps could have been included in several tables at the same time (e.g. an LGBTQ+ social networking app could have been in “Social Media” or in “Dating & LGBTQ+” categories), but were eventually included in one table only for presentation purposes. The new tagging system used on AppleCensorship.com addresses the multiplicity of nature and function that many apps possess.


All results are published here. (Links for specific categories are provided below)

Image: Screenshot of the VPNs category list. For each app, its logo, ID number, official App Store category, availability in mainland China and Hong Kong’s App Stores, as well as a link to AppleCensorship’s website, are provided.

A total of 561 apps were identified, all currently unavailable in mainland China’s App Store.

The difficulty of identifying sensitive apps varies for each category. First, the (unknown) total number of existing apps for each category varies greatly from one category to another. For example, it is assumed that there are much more Bible or Quran apps in the App Store than apps related to Uyghur or Tibetan cultures and religion. Some apps might also be easier to identify because they use very specific keywords in their names and/or description. For example, the vast majority of VPN apps use the acronym “VPN” directly in their name. Those which do not use the acronym in the name, are almost guaranteed to use it in the app’s description, which is used by the App Store to offer relevant results.

Category name: Tibet

Total # of apps: 41

Unavailable in Hong Kong: 1

Most recent removal from Hong Kong: N/A

Link to table: Link 

Category name: VPNs & Private Browsers

Total # of apps: 234

Unavailable in Hong Kong: 16

Most recent removal from Hong Kong: Between 06/2022 and 12/2022 (VPN FUN - Best Unlimited Proxy) 

Link to table: Link 

Category name: Uyghur

Total # of apps: 11

Unavailable in Hong Kong: 1

Most recent removal from Hong Kong: N/A 

Link to table: Link

Category name: Religion

Total # of apps: 125

Unavailable in Hong Kong: 8

Most recent removal from Hong Kong: N/A 

Link to table: Link


Category name: Media & information 

Total # of apps: 54

Unavailable in Hong Kong: 1

Most recent removal from Hong Kong: Between 03/2021 and 01/2022 (Webull) 

Link to table: Link

Category name: Social media 

Total # of apps: 45

Unavailable in Hong Kong: 5

Most recent removal from Hong Kong: Between 11/2022 and 02/2023 (GroupMe) 

Link to table: Link

Category name: Privacy

Total # of apps: 22

Unavailable in Hong Kong: 0

Most recent removal from Hong Kong: N/A

Link to table: Link 

Almost all the apps that were identified are still available in Hong Kong’s App Store. The table above highlights the number of apps unavailable in Hong Kong. Only two categories, Religion and VPNs, include more than five apps unavailable in Hong Kong. These results indicate that Hong Kong’s App Store is not subject to widespread censorship enforced by Apple and that users continue to have access to the same apps that were available before the passing of the National Security Law (NSL) in 2020.

Detecting the unavailability of an app is different from detecting a removal. For an app removal to be detected by the ASM, the app must have been monitored by the ASM at least once before it was removed. The time between the date of the latest test when the app was found available and the first test when the app was found to be unavailable, constitutes the time window in which the removal occurred. Such cases were identified in four categories: “VPNs and Private Browsers”, “Media & information”, “Social media” and “Dating & LGBTQ+”. These app removals occurred around the end of 2021 and throughout 2022.

For categories which include apps unavailable in Hong Kong but without any app removal detected, a “N/A” mention indicates that these apps were always unavailable in the Hong Kong App Store, whether they had been tested before the present study or tested for the first time during the course of it.

Out of the 561 apps identified, 121 (around 22%) were not included in mainland China’s list of currently unavailable apps, making the exploratory method we used a very promising approach for future measurements of app unavailability. In addition, by using Hong Kong’s App Store as a primary App Store for our keyword-based searches, we also ensure that the apps identified have a certain degree of popularity in Hong Kong, making them more probable as potential targets of censorship by the Chinese authorities.

Monitoring censorship in Hong Kong

The 8 lists compiled by AppleCensorship constitute a good starting point to monitor the evolution of App Store censorship in Hong Kong. The lists include apps related to keywords that are known to be censored in China, which are all unavailable in mainland China’s App Store and some of which are popular among users based in Hong Kong. While it is not known if the Chinese authorities intend to focus on Apple’s App Store to control information in the region, the lists provide useful information on the content that is already targeted in mainland China and could also serve to inform online censorship measurements in both mainland China and Hong Kong (i.e. the targeting of websites related to the apps could be a sign of an increase in information control).

More sensitive categories could be created. For example, apps related to Taiwan (i.e. Taiwan based media, social media, NGOs, etc.) or COVID19. Searching keywords censored on social media in mainland China might also offer unexpected results. For example, non-sensitive apps that are blocked because they include sensitive keywords in their name or description. This would address a potential scenario, although less probable, where the authorities do not ask Apple to block specific apps but instead ask the company to implement blocks based on a blacklist of “unwanted” keywords in the App Store.

Finally, one possibility to deepen investigation on information control would be to monitor apps that are promoted or endorsed by the government. Taking the example of VPNs, some apps developed by China-based entities remain accessible in the country. Should these apps become prevalent in Hong Kong’s App Store, they could signal an increased effort to direct Hong Kong users towards Chinese government-sanctioned apps with the aim of increasing surveillance or countering censorship circumvention attempts. Studying apps (news and social media apps in particular) that are only available in mainland China and Hong Kong’s App Stores could also provide information on propaganda efforts led by the government, via private companies.

View Hong Kong’s App Store’s list of currently unavailable apps

View mainland China’s App Store’s list of currently unavailable apps

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