On December 22, 2022 AppleCensorship releases two reports simultaneously, both highlighting Apple’s censorship of its App Stores and the company’s many compromises with authoritarian regimes.
The first report focuses on how Apple censors in Hong Kong. As human rights and fundamental freedoms in the territory shrink, including digital rights, Apple is reluctant to take any commitment to uphold its users rights to access information freely and express their views online. The second report looks at Apple’s presence in Russia up until the start of the war in Ukraine in February 2022 and highlights the issues posed by Apple’s lack of transparency surrounding its App Store policies, including compliance with international sanctions.
Both reports highlight how far Apple is willing to go to safeguard its relationship with authoritarian regimes and maintain access to those markets.
“In the name of profit, Apple censors millions of users from all aspects of society: from activists and political figures to members of vulnerable minorities such as the LGBTQ+ community in Russia or religious and ethnic minorities in China,” said Benjamin Ismail, Director of the AppleCensorship project.
In AppleCensorship’s report focusing on Russia, entitled “United Apple” in reference to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s party “United Russia”, the organization has taken a deeper look at Russia’s App Store, where many LGBTQ+ related apps are blocked.
While many “Shopping”, “Finance” and “Business” apps were removed from the Russian App Store shortly after the start of the war in Ukraine, AppleCensorship’s research has revealed much more worrying trends:
● Patterns of app removals from Russia’s App Store detected by the App Store Monitor (ASM) suggest that specific groups of apps have been targeted by the Russian authorities and that a system of Apple-enforced targeted censorship is in place in Russia’s App Store.
● LGBTQ+ related apps constitute the most prominent type of apps being unavailable in Russia’s App Store, with at least 25 apps currently unavailable, including some of the most popular LGBTQ+ apps in the world.
● More than 30 VPN and private browsing apps have been taken down since the start of the war in Ukraine, while the Russian authorities were announcing that “measures were being taken to limit access to VPN services that violate Russian law”.
● Although Russia’s App Store does not reflect the present government-controlled media landscape, the list of unavailable news apps continues to grow as the App Store Monitor unveils new foreign media blocked or removed from Russia’s App Store.
● Apple’s recent actions regarding several other apps operated by companies owned by Russian oligarchs who have been sanctioned, point towards contradictory behavior from Apple, and raise questions whether Apple’s opaque management of its App Store is compatible with the necessary scrutiny and respect for human rights principles and values that is required of private companies.
“Apple’s content curation policies represent a denial of the company’s stated principles and values and show a lack of respect for privacy and the protection of users’ rights. In Russia, Apple has enabled censorship of vulnerable communities while promoting apps that are used by the government for surveillance purposes,” added Ismail.
Whether pressed by Hong Kong local administration or by the Chinese central government, on a number of occasions Apple has complied with demands to censor content deemed in violation of local laws or simply critical of Beijing.
“Apps at risk” highlights threats to freedom of information that Apple’s predominance in Hong Kong poses. Some of the key findings included in the report include:
● Hong Kongers’ reliance on mobile apps that are banned in China to communicate and access information make Apple a defect “kill switch” at the disposal of the Chinese censors.
● 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 are affecting apps’ availability globally.
● Apple has not made any public commitment to uphold Hong Kongers’ fundamental rights to access information and express their opinion online. If the Chinese authorities were to increase digital censorship in the region, nobody knows how Apple will respond.
AppleCensorship has issued a set of recommendations for Apple, including demands that Apple declare publicly what measures it will take if Beijing increases its crackdown on digital freedoms and access to information in Hong Kong.
“Apple should make it very clear what actions it will, or will not take, to resist app takedown requests from Beijing or from Hong Kong’s government agencies,” said Ismail.
AppleCensorship has also made a similar demand regarding the company’s presence in Russia, asking that Apple “take measures to prevent any return to a normalization of its relationship with the Russian government.”
“As our two reports show, examples of Apple’s censorship abound. Apple’s temporary withdrawal from Russia following the start of the war in Ukraine, and Apple’s decision to move part of its production out of China, have not provided tangible evidence of any improvement of the situation in the App Store so far. For all we know, Apple is still willing to collaborate with repressive regimes.
We need to ensure that Apple will not contribute further to censorship and the erosion of democracy worldwide. This is why we will continue to monitor and highlight all cases of censorship, as well as to support any legislation that would reduce Apple’s dangerous hegemony over the peoples’ digital space”, Ismail concluded.