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Apple bans Hong Kong protest safety app and is accused of “sucking up to China”

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Yesterday, tensions between Hong Kong protestors and the police escalated significantly with one teenage protestor being shot in the chest at point-blank range by local police. As tensions continue to rise, many protestors and residents have turned to apps to help them avoid areas of conflict and no-go zones.

HKmap Live is a popular crowdsourced mapping app in this category which maps reports from a Telegram group to show users the locations of railway closures, spots where the police are patrolling, areas where tear gas has been deployed, and other relevant geo-location data. Many users have credited the app with keeping residents safe and allowing users to comply with law enforcement’s requests to avoid areas that have been marked as “illegal assembly” zones.

However, on Tuesday, the owners of HKmap Live said that Apple had pulled it from the App Store and given the following reason for its removal: “Your app contains content – or facilitates, enables, and encourages and activity – that is not legal … Specifically, the app allowed users to evade law enforcement.”

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While the owners of HKmap Live believe that this is a bureaucratic error rather than direct censorship, they’ve pushed back against Apple’s reason for removing the app and said that anything can be used for illegal purposes in the wrong hands but the “App is for info, and we do not encourage illegal activity.”

UNC SILS professor Zeynep Tufekci also pointed out that many similar mapping apps such as Waze, which can also be used to avoid law enforcement, are allowed on the App Store and that this seems to be an example of “Apple sucking up to China.”

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Apple often positions itself as a champion of privacy and human rights. However, it has long been accused of ignoring China’s human rights violations and bowing to the country’s demands in order to grow its business. Last month, Apple ignored China’s involvement in one of the largest reported iPhone hacks to date. The hack targeted the Uighur Muslim community in the Xinjiang region – a region that digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has described as “the world’s laboratory for internet repression.” The company has also been accused of censoring Chinese language podcasts and songs in China on behalf of the Chinese government this year.

The decision to remove the app follows numerous other reports of the Hong Kong protests being censored by various tech companies. Last month, an artist’s “Free Hong Kong” art was censored on Instagram after the company labeled it “hate speech” and video sharing app TikTok was also accused of censoring content about the Hong Kong protests.

Update – October 4, 2019: Apple has approved the iOS app. Senator Josh Hawley says that Apple mistakenly failed to go through the full review process the first time.

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