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

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Apple’s latest “Transparency Report” will be released soon, likely accompanied by a formidable Public Relations push. Apple will boast about how the company’s “foremost concern is user privacy and security, and [insert hollow buzzwords]…” Apple will also recite their classic leitmotif for app removals:

“Though the final decisions sometimes run contrary to our wishes, we believe that our
customers are best served when we remain in the country providing them access to
products that promote self-expression with world-class privacy protections.”

Behind this performance, we expect Apple will continue to infamously and intentionally hide its actual operations in the shadows.

In its report “Taken Down” A Look into Apple’s Transparency, published today, AppleCensorship reveals information that Apple does not want in the public domain, including:

● Apple receives an app take-down request from a government every 2.5 days, on average.
● Apple removes an app from the App Store every 16 hours, on average.
● Overall, Apple has complied with government app take-down requests 73.8% of the time. In 2020, Apple complied 100% of the time. 1,060 apps were removed as a result of these requests.
● Apple complied with the vast majority of app takedown requests made by the governments of China (98%) and Russia (95%).
● When countries request an app to be taken down worldwide, it results in an enormous amount of removals. Apple only reports on the requests (1,437) and apps removed (1,060), not the actual removals (more than 30,000).


What is the AppleCensorship Project?

GreatFire began monitoring Apple’s censorship in 2013. In 2019, it launched the AppleCensorship project along with the App Store Monitor (ASM) to track iOS apps that become unavailable in one or more App Stores. For some apps, such unavailability is at the discretion of the developer. But for many others, their absence from a given App Store is due to Apple’s censorship policies. The ASM allows AppleCensorship to compare Apple’s transparency statements to reality, looking for gaps and contradictions.


iOpacity

Apple deliberately presents irrelevant data in its Transparency Reports to the point that the real activity in the App Store is nearly unrecognizable. The data that Apple does provide diverts the attention of the reader and makes it difficult to notice what key information is missing. For example, Apple communicates on both the “number of requests” and “number of apps removed”. But the company does not provide more details. Readers of the Transparency Reports will not know what laws the apps allegedly violated, the type of apps (category) that were removed, the legitimacy of a government request, and the level of compliance from Apple.

While Apple reported only a small amount of apps having been taken down (1060), AppleCensorship identified significantly more removals that raise question over the real number of apps having been targeted by governments or by Apple itself. AppleCensorship’s App Store Monitor is only able to track a fraction of the millions of apps populating the App Store, but it still identified more than 9,000 app removals (3,000 targeted and 6,000 worldwide removals) including several hundred apps that may have been targeted by government-led censorship.

Similarly, Apple separates Legal Violation Takedown Requests (the alleged violation of law(s)) from Platform Policy Violations Takedown Requests (the alleged violation of Apple’s App Store Guidelines). Communicating on the number of apps instead of the number of app removals strongly misleads the public on the real impact of apps which are removed from all App Stores. Each app removed from all App Stores can generate 175 removals. Two reports are issued per year and no data is aggregated to provide an annual overview, thus concealing app removal trends and patterns.

The latest AppleCensorship watchdog report from GreatFire shares information that Apple has
never disclosed, as well as information the company attempts to obfuscate.


Hidden Figures

While AppleCensorship’s ASM cannot determine the reason behind each removal it detects, it does identify the apps which are removed, which is information that Apple refuses to provide. And a significant portion of the removed apps flagged by ASM are related to sensitive topics which are at-risk of being censored for political reasons by governments worldwide (religion, sexuality, etc). The data collected by the ASM brings to light some patterns in app removals pointing to Apple’s practice of “categorical bans”.


Refusing Transparency

In addition to major discrepancies in data, Apple’s Transparency Reports have been described as “woefully lacking.” Apple continues to provide no insight into which specific apps were removed, when they were removed, the reason for the removal, which law(s) the app(s) violated, which government body requested the removal, if Apple objected to the removal, and how Apple objected. This is all information Apple could provide if it wanted to. Watchdogs have asked Apple for years to be more transparent.

A shareholder resolution in 2020 asked Apple to commit to protecting freedom of expression. Another shareholder resolution submitted in 2021 asked Apple to:

“…revise the Company’s Transparency Reports to provide clear explanations of the
number and categories of app removals from the app store, in response to or in
anticipation of government requests, that may reasonably be expected to limit freedom
of expression or access to information.”

Apple responded by asking the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to prevent the company’s shareholders from being able to vote on the resolution. Apple’s lack of transparency is clearly intentional. Opacity is Apple’s modus operandi.


Recommendations

Apple needs to start reporting the following information, retroactively and in all future reports:

Information that would allow the public to understand how governments are attempting
to remove (or censor) content, the reasons they provide for their request(s), and how
Apple handles these requests:

● Which government body / agency issued the takedown request.
● How the structure of these requests works.
● Whether all apps specified in a single takedown request must contain similar content, or break the same law.
● Apple should provide a breakdown of the requests listed: the number of apps included in each request, and the rules and procedures that Apple follows when dealing with these requests.
● Indication of the specific laws and/or guideline(s) the app(s) allegedly broke.

Information that would allow the public to understand how Apple is responding to these governmental requests, a copy of Apple’s internal procedures, and a breakdown on how Apple makes decisions on how to act on government requests:

● A timeline of the requests being filed, the length of time it took to consider each request, and the point at which the apps specified were removed from the country’s App Store.
● Whether the app(s) removed also broke one of the App Store’s content-specific guidelines, or whether they broke the App Store Guidelines insofar as they facilitated (or participated in) locally illegal activity.
● Whether all apps specified in a single takedown request must contain similar content, or break the same law.


Apple should also provide:

● Data on removals it makes according to categorical requests for governments, which do not specify apps but do function as blanket legal violation requests.
● Data on the rejection and removal decisions it makes after requests from third parties (other than government agencies or official bodies with legal powers).
● Details of the apps it removes of its own accord, whether these removals are due to guideline violations, proactive takedowns of apps which break local laws, or government-requested category bans. It should also categorize apps by the reason for their removal.


Information that would allow the public to understand which category of apps is subjected to the most censorship and the impact each removal had on the public’s access to the app:

● Details of the apps removed including the names of specific apps, the App Store categories, and the developers who made the apps.
● Apple should indicate whether the offending content was the result of a change or update to the app, or whether the app had always been in breach of the App Store Guidelines, without Apple noticing.
● The number of Stores in which an app was released before being taken down.
● A list of all apps which remain on the App Store but are blocked by governments. Apple should further inform users of such blocks directly on the app description page within the App Store.


We also recommend:

● Apple should publish data concerning government-requested and autonomous app removals in real time.
● Apple should model its Transparency Reports on the efforts of Twitter and Google to provide as much – rather than as little – useful information as possible.
● Apple should rewrite its guidelines in accordance with the important role they play in the availability of digital content worldwide. This is particularly pressing if Apple continues to allow governments to use the App Store Guidelines to request the removal of apps from all 175 App Stores.
● Apple should take the necessary steps to enable public access to the 20 App Stores which were added in 2020, thus allowing monitoring of apps’ availability in those App Stores.


Apple’s Corporate Policies Must Change

Benjamin Ismail, AppleCensorship Project Coordinator and GreatFire’s Campaign and Advocacy Director, said:

Our report clearly establishes the lies and falsehoods of Apple’s Transparency Reports. It is time for Apple to drop the act. It must acknowledge the deeply flawed management of its App Store and start taking the necessary steps to prevent government-led and corporate censorship from depriving millions of users of their fundamental rights to access to information and freedom of expression.

Ismail added:

Many actors from civil society would be willing to help Apple implement changes to its corporate policies. Apple’s recent decisions regarding Russia show that the company’s leadership is well aware of what Corporate Social Responsibility and ethics call for. We just hope that, unlike in this case, Apple’s doesn’t wait until it’s too late to do the right thing”.

Ashley Gjøvik, Apple Whistleblower and human rights activist, contributed to this 2022 AppleCensorship report. Gjøvik volunteered to help with the project. She noted:

Human rights are not determined by borders on maps, or by borders between the physical and online worlds. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right which must be protected: everywhere. Private corporations should not be allowed to deprive people of their rights, nor should we tolerate off-the-record, backroom discussions between corporations and authoritarian governments. We must demand transparency, respect, and dignity.”

Download the Report

Download : “Taken Down” – A Look Into Apple’s Transparency Reports -Digital

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