“Taken Down” A Look into Apple’s Transparency Reports : Key Highlights

Published on April 21, 2022, AppleCensorship’s report “Taken Down: A Look into Apple’s Transparency Reports”, exposes how Apple carefully engineered its Transparency Reports to conceal as much information as possible on app removals from the 175 App Stores it operates worldwide. As Apple is about to publish its latest report, covering the period of January – June 2021, AppleCensorship revisits the main findings of its report and the discrepancies between the figures communicated by Apple and the reality of the App Store, uncovered by the App Store Monitor (ASM).

Read April 21st Press release / Read the Report online / View the data : here and here

Dissecting the four Transparency Reports covering “Worldwide Government App Store Takedown Requests” from January 2019 until December 2020, AppleCensorship uncovered scores of missing data, incoherence and contradictory information presented in the most deceptive way, making it impossible for the public to have a clear understanding of Apple’s government-led and proactive removals of apps from its App Stores. In presenting such reports as its effort to be transparent to the public, Apple is deceiving its users and the public on the reality of its takedown policy, both in terms of its nature and true scale.

AppleCensorship’s report demonstrates that despite the publication of these so-called “transparency” reports; Apple is still operating in the most opaque way, unaccountable for the decisions it takes regarding certain content, information and tools unavailable on the App Store.

Although information contained in “Taken Down: A Look into Apple’s Transparency Reports” must be taken as a whole to obtain a clear picture of Apple’s wrongdoings in its App Stores, the following highlights can be extracted from the report:

Hidden Reality of Worldwide Government Takedown Requests:

  • Apple’s Transparency Reports are the antithesis of any genuine attempt at transparency:
    • No information on the apps being removed, their category, the type of content and functions they offered, and the App Stores in which they were present before being removed.
    • No information on government bodies issuing the takedown requests, the dates of requests, their legal basis, and the reasons invoked by these bodies for app removals.
    • Only ten vague and shortly phrased reasons were used repeatedly by Apple to describe the reasons for app removals: “apps operating without government licence”, “illegal gambling” and “illegal content” account for 32 out of the 41 brief explanations provided by Apple.
  • Apple purposely uses the wrong metric to communicate on app takedowns from the App Store. Although Apple discloses that 1060 apps were removed over two years, this is not equivalent to 1060 removals. In fact, even if we only consider those 1060 apps, more than 30,000 removals occurred across all 155 (175 since 2020) App Stores operated by Apple.
  • Apple cites two reasons for app removal requests:
    1. Legal Violation Takedown Requests (LVTR): these requests are related to apps which allegedly violated the law(s) of the country which initiated the takedown request.
    2. Platform Policy Takedown Requests (PPVTR): these requests are related to apps which allegedly violated Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines. Although Apple often blurs the line on this matter, apps targeted by these requests have not been found in violation of the law(s) of the country requesting their takedown.

LVTR vs. PPTVR 

  • Apple is misleading the public by saying LVTRs “only” trigger removals in the App Store of the requesting government. For example, if the News app TouTiao (今日头条), which was only released in the China App Store, was deleted, its removal, albeit from only one App Store (the App Store of the requesting government’s country), would in fact mean the app’s total disappearance from the App Store and for all its users.
  • Rather than constituting a substantially less impactful removal than a worldwide PPVTR, such LVTRs have the potential to harm millions of users, with no hope of circumventing this removal by changing device or App Store location.
  • Since no information is given on the apps being removed, it is impossible to know if certain groups of users (such as Human Rights activists, journalists, ethnic minorities or vulnerable communities such as LGBTQ+) have been targeted by such removal.
  • Apple has been intentionally simplifying the situation each time it has justified its App Store curation policies by saying the company has to “comply with local laws” wherever it operates. In fact more than 20% of the requests it received over the last two years (more than 25% in 2019) concern Platform Policy violations (i.e. Apple’s App Store Guidelines) and therefore do not have anything to do with legal compliance.
  • PPVTRs trigger many more removals despite accounting for far fewer ‘Apps Removed’. Over two years, the 869 apps removed following LVTRs generated 948 removals worldwide, while the 191 apps removed for PPVTRs generated 29,605 removals worldwide.
  • In other words, 96.90% of all removals were made following Apple’s own decisions. Only 3.10% of all removals were made because of Apple’s legal obligation to comply with local laws.

Collateral Censorship

  • By not providing any figures on app removals, Apple conceals the existence of “collateral censorship” on the App Store: cases whereby one government’s request, motivated by Apple’s own guidelines and, in some cases, by local laws, result in removals in other countries, and frequently across the entire world.
  • A large majority of countries (133) never made a single app takedown request to Apple but saw between 191 and 194 apps removed in their App Stores.
  • Although China is the App Store that saw the highest number of apps removed, it is also the App Store which was, by far, the least affected by “collateral” removals. China initiated 167 “Platform Policy” removals while it was affected by only 24 other such removals.
  • Russia initiated 19 “Platform Policy” removals, while Brazil, Canada, Kuwait, Netherlands and Saudi Arabia each initiated one removal.
  • “Collateral removals” constitute 96.53% (29,493) of all removals worldwide while self-imposed removals constitute only 3.47% (1060) of all app removals that occurred in 2019 and 2020.
  • Over the last two years, 186 unknown apps were removed by Apple from 155/175 App Stores at the request of China and Russia, without providing any legal justification. Users worldwide are left with no option but to trust that Apple “knows [the line] when [it] sees it”.

On compliance:

  • Apple’s average compliance rate with app takedown requests over two years is 73.76%. Apple has a 100% compliance rate with 17 countries out of the 22 that made takedown requests. Apple has not rejected any takedown request from any government since January 2020.
  • Apple complied with the vast majority of app takedown requests made by China and Russia, respectively, refusing only 20 removals out of 810 requested by China and 2 out of 42 removals requested by Russia over two years.
  • The number of takedown requests and the number of apps specified by those requests decreased significantly from 2019 to 2020, with 166 requests concerning 935 apps in 2019 compared to 117 requests (29% decrease) concerning 502 apps (46% decrease) in 2020. However, with a compliance rate of 100% in 2020, the total number of apps removed by Apple in 2020 (502 apps removed) is almost equal to the number of apps removed in 2019 (558 apps removed) despite the significant decrease in requests.
  • Apple removed 69.74% of all apps specified in LVTRs, while it removed 100.00% of all apps target by PPVTRs. This is significant, as despite Apple’s justification for app removals being that it must comply with local laws everywhere it operates, the rare cases where the company decided to refuse to remove apps were in fact cases where laws were allegedly violated.

Categorical Bans

  • Categorical bans – referenced in the New York Times investigation published in May 2021- allow Apple to circumvent the spirit of their own commitment to transparency, by omitting figures for large numbers of government-mandated app removals from the biannual transparency reports.
  • It is likely that the huge number of takedowns recorded by the ASM is a further indication of a system of blanket requests: demands from governments for Apple to do the work of state censors and identify all apps of a certain kind without needing to be notified in each case by the government in question.
  • Although only monitoring a fraction of the nearly 2 million apps populating the App Store, AppleCensorship’s App Store Monitor (ASM) was able to record no less than 2933 removals (of 1159 unique apps) between January 1st 2019 and December 31st 2020.
  • In the studied period, the ASM recorded no fewer than 6,458 apps that were removed from all 155 App Stores (175 in H2 2020). That’s the equivalent of 1 million removals if we assume that all apps were originally available in all App Stores.
  •  Drawing from its data on “Detected Changes” (ASM: DETECTED CHANGES) and “Disappeared Apps” (ASM: DISAPPEARED), AppleCensorship identified several hundred high-risk apps which may have been censored by Apple on behalf of governments. These apps were, regrouped in the following categories: “VPNs & browsers”, “LGBTQ+” related apps, “Security & Privacy” apps, “News” apps, “Religion” apps and “Other” apps and include sensitive content or functions that could be deemed controversial or illegal by national authorities or by Apple itself.

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