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New report shows extent of Apple’s censorship for China and Russia’s governments

VPNs and private browsing apps are the main types of apps that are unavailable in these countries.

Two new reports from AppleCensorship, a project that monitors and documents ’s App Store censorship, have shone a light on the scale of App Store censorship in Hong Kong and .

While some of the unavailability is due to companies deciding to remove the apps themselves, AppleCensorship claims that much of this censorship is due to Apple.

“Both reports highlight how far Apple is willing to go to safeguard its relationship with authoritarian regimes and maintain access to those markets,” AppleCensorship states.

Benjamin Ismail, Director of the AppleCensorship project, added: “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+ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, plus] community in Russia or religious and ethnic minorities in .”

The report on Apple’s censorship in Hong Kong is titled “Apps at Risk: Apple’s censorship and compromises in Hong Kong” and reveals that a staggering 2,370 apps are unavailable in Hong Kong. AppleCensorship notes that only China (with 10,737 unavailable apps) and Russia (with 2,754 unavailable apps) have more unavailable apps in their App Stores. This figure represents a more than 4x increase from July 2021 when 550 apps were unavailable in the Hong Kong App Store.

The report also reveals that 53 virtual private network (VPN) and private browsing apps, 15 dating, relationship, and LGBTQ+ related apps, nine information, media, news, TV, and radio apps, and five social media and communication tool apps were unavailable in the Hong Kong App Store in November 2022. Additionally, it highlights that 23 Hong Kong-focused apps (such as Hong Kong map apps, Hong Kong News apps, Hong Kong radio apps, and Hong Kong TV apps) have disappeared from all App Stores.

“With an estimated market share of over 50%, Apple plays a central role in Beijing’s strategy to control information and expression online,” AppleCensorship states in the report. “Apple has become a potential ‘kill switch’ for the communist party, which could, using the NSL [National Security Law], purge any content deemed illegal from the mobile ecosystem used by half of Hong Kong’s population. Recent history shows that Apple has been more than willing to cooperate with Chinese authorities and to export the censorship they exercise in mainland China to Hong Kong.”

The report on Apple’s censorship in Russia is titled “United Apple: Apple’s censorship and compromises in Russia” and highlights that 2,347 apps were unavailable in Russia’s App Store in September 2022 — a more than 5x increase from November 2021 when 464 apps were unavailable in Russia’s App Store.

AppleCensorship states that “patterns of app removals from Russia’s App Store…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.”

Specifically, the report reveals that 30 virtual private network (VPN) and private browsing apps, 25 dating, relationship, and LGBTQ+ related apps, 25 information, media, news, TV, and radio apps, 19 social media and communication tool apps, and eight digital security and privacy apps were unavailable in the Russian App Store in September 2022.

Additionally, it highlights that between January 2019 and December 2020, Apple complied with 95.24% of app takedown requests from Russian authorities.

“Apple knew or should have known that the introduction of their services and products into Russia would result in demands by the Russian government to implement their century-old censorship, surveillance, and propaganda policies into Apple’s technology,” AppleCensorship states in the report. “Apple’s concurrent dealings with the Chinese government would have also informed Apple that authoritarian governments will often not accept ‘no’ for an answer. Apple strategically invested in the Russian markets knowing that their presence there could, and likely would, further harmful and violent national policies.”

You can access both reports here.

AppleCensorship also called for Apple to:

  • Increase its transparency around app distribution
  • Provide more data on app rejections and government involvement in app removals
  • Introduce new corporate policies to resist censorship (such as allowing sideloading of apps)
  • Adhere to the United Nations (UN) Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to “address adverse human rights impacts with which it is involved”

Additionally, AppleCensorship demanded that Apple “declare publicly what measures it will take if Beijing increases its crackdown on digital freedoms and access to information in Hong Kong” and Apple “take measures to prevent any return to a normalization of its relationship with the Russian government.”

The report is the latest of many examples of how Apple uses its tight grip on the App Store to censor or restrict apps around the world. A previous report from AppleCensorship revealed that over 190,000 apps had been removed from App Stores around the world with apps focused on news, political content, and information sharing among those that are most targeted with censorship.

Since the only way to install iPhone and iPad apps without jailbreaking the device is to go through the App Store, removing an app from a regional App Store essentially makes it inaccessible to almost all iPhone and iPad users in that region. However, a recent report claims that Apple will finally start to loosen this iron grip in 2023 and allow sideloading.

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