Apple accused of censoring apps in Hong Kong and Russia • The Register

Apple has been accused of selling off human rights for profit by colluding with authoritarian censorship demands in China and Russia, according to two reports released on Thursday.

The reports “Apps at Risk: Apple’s Censorship and Compromises in Hong Kong” and “United Apple: Apple’s Censorship and Compromises in Russia” were published by the Apple Censorship Project, run by free speech advocacy group GreatFire.

“As both of our reports show, there are numerous examples of Apple’s censorship,” said Benjamin Ismail, campaign and advocacy director at GreatFire and project leader of GreatFire’s Apple Censorship Project, in a statement.

The report evokes “the disingenuousness of Apple’s self-proclaimed support for LGBTQ+ rights.”

“Apple’s temporary withdrawal from Russia after the start of the war in Ukraine and Apple’s decision to shift part of its production out of China have so far provided no tangible evidence of an improvement in the situation in the App Store. As far as we know, Apple is still willing to cooperate with repressive regimes.”

Ismail said he expects the reports will be used to persuade lawmakers to pass antitrust legislation aimed at weakening Apple’s app store gatekeeping powers — something European lawmakers may want to do with the recently passed one Digital Markets Act has achieved.

The Hong Kong-focused Apps at Risk report claims that Apple, with a 50 percent share of the smartphone market, is becoming the Chinese Communist Party’s de facto kill switch for politically provocative content.

It notes that as of November 2022, the Hong Kong App Store was missing 2,370 apps that were available elsewhere. The Chinese App Store is missing 10,837 apps and the Russian App Store is 2,754.

Many VPN apps have disappeared from the Hong Kong app store, the report said. And it is claimed that many media and information apps have been taken down worldwide in the past two years, raising the possibility that Apple is engaging in global self-censorship or is doing so on behalf of authorities.

The Apps at Risk report says Apple has failed to support Hong Kong people’s right to freely access information and speak out online, despite the Chinese government’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

“Apple has known of Beijing’s authoritarian leanings for decades,” the report said. “Apple’s response to events in Hong Kong over the past few years has not been spontaneous. Apple’s response is aligned with its global business strategies, with the top priority being to appease the Chinese government to protect Apple’s supply chain, distribution channels and revenue stream.”

The report calls on Apple to publicly reaffirm its support for Hong Kongers’ right to information and freedom of expression.

The Russia report examines differences in the way Russian and Chinese authorities enforce censorship demands, but comes to similar conclusions about how Apple operates. It states that from 2018 to 2022, Apple appeared to be more willing to comply with censorship requests from the Kremlin.

“When Apple’s compliance with censorship requests is best illustrated by cases of app removals from the iOS App Store,” the report reads. “Russia’s innovative and comprehensive repression has also led to censorship of software (LGBTQ+ watch faces), accessories (LGBTQ+ watch bands), software-based mapping (Crimea), protocols (Private Relay) and even the design of iOS (Russian iOS). .”

The Russia report, which cites Apple’s removal of LGBTQ+ apps promoting state-sponsored homophobia, calls out “the disingenuousness of Apple’s self-proclaimed support for LGBTQ+ rights.”

When asked if Apple’s use of end-to-end encryption in iCloud could change anything, Ismail expressed skepticism.

“We don’t know anything about how the data is stored in China Guizhou’s data center, which is owned by a Chinese company and not Apple,” he said in an email The registry. “In this case, and many other examples related to App Store governance (e.g., government app takedown requests, App Store Review Board, etc.), Apple’s hallmark is opacity.”

Ongoing Leverage

Ismail warned that the influence of authorities in China and Russia on Apple will remain. “Relationships between these regimes and Apple are still asymmetrical and heavily in favor of the governments of the country where Apple wants to maintain its market access, manufacture and sell its products,” he said, pointing to Apple’s Private Relay, which it never did China made and was canceled in Russia.

However, Ismail expressed optimism that Apple may be forced to allow third-party app stores. This requirement, called for in Europe’s Digital Markets Act, is also part of the Open App Markets Act, a bill that GreatFire approved and has yet to be passed by US lawmakers.

“If you, the user, are free to download and install apps from any store and the web, then Apple’s removal of apps at the behest of a repressive government will have less of an impact on users,” Ismail said. “Developers will continue to be able to update (hence secure) their apps and offer them to users without any control or intervention from Apple.”

“Moreover, it should be easier for Apple to dismiss censorship calls by saying that users can find the app targeted by the authorities outside of the App Store.” Ultimately, it could discourage authorities from making the claim to Apple in the first place.”

“Of course, sideloading isn’t the perfect solution, and other stores could be targeted by repressive governments. The important part is to give users the ability to handle their device the way they want. Developers, publishers and customers must all be subject to Apple’s decision is very dangerous. That has been the case time and time again over the past ten years.”

“Apple has known Beijing’s authoritarian preferences for decades”

Asked whether Apple’s competitors had handled the situation better, Ismail pointed to Google, which shut down its Chinese search engine in 2010 after it was hacked from within the country.

Google and Twitter are much better at transparency, he said, citing an Apple censorship report from April “which shows Apple lying in its transparency reports and the extent of app unavailability and the reality of the 175 app stores it has worldwide.” operates, intentionally obfuscated.”

“It might be time for Apple to consider the possibility that it does more harm when it’s present in China than when it’s not there,” Ismail said. “In its human rights policy, Apple claims that ‘our approach is based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’, but every principle set out in that UN document is the polar opposite of Apple’s policy.”

Apple did not respond to a request for comment. ® Apple accused of censoring apps in Hong Kong and Russia • The Register

Rick Schindler

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