Apple Clarifies Its Policy on COVID-19 Apps

Coronavirus news on iPhone screen Credit: Tanak Dusun / Shutterstock
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Earlier this month, several developers discovered that Apple was taking a hard line stance on apps related to the COVID-19 pandemic, seemingly banning any apps that purported to provide information on the virus but didn’t come from an official source.

As is often the case with new App Store review policies, the decision at the time seemed to be rather capricious on Apple’s part, leading some to speculate that it could be accused of not playing fair with developers. A perusal of the published App Store Review Guidelines suggested that Apple wasn’t enforcing any specific policy that had previously been communicated to developers, with only some vague references to clauses about apps and copyright holders and highly-regulated fields and sensitive data, none of which seemed to directly apply.

However, Apple has now communicated its official stance on COVID-19 apps on its developer website, codifying the policy that it appears to have already been enforcing over the past several weeks.

In the update, titled Ensuring the Credibility of Health & Safety Information, Apple outlines its very strict policy on apps related to the COVID-19 pandemic, making it clear that all apps related to the outbreak must come from “recognized entities such as government organizations, health-focused NGOs, companies deeply credentialed in health issues, and medical or educational institutions.”

Several of the apps that were rejected earlier this month drew data from legitimate sources such as the World Health Organization (WHO), however in this statement, Apple is making it clear that it’s not enough for a third-party app to use an official data source, but that the developer itself must be directly representing “one of these recognized entities.”

Communities around the world are depending on apps to be credible news sources — helping users understand the latest health innovations, find out where they can get help if needed or provide assistance to their neighbors.

Apple is also making it clear that only official educational and informational apps will be permitted, adding that “entertainment or game apps with COVID-19 as their theme will not be allowed.” In addition to the fact that such apps would likely be in bad taste, Apple is likely trying to keep the signal-to-noise ratio down on the App Store as well when it comes to searches for COVID-19 by ensuring that the store won’t be cluttered with meaningless apps that do nothing to actually help users who are looking for valid information sources.

Expedited Reviews

Apple has also added that due to the need to get legitimate COVID-19 related apps into the hands of customers as soon as possible, developers of these apps will be able to get an expedited review process by selecting “Time-Sensitive Event” to move their apps to the head of the line.

Note that independent developers can still create apps if they’re being contracted by a legitimate organization to do so, and Apple advises that those who are developing apps on behalf of such an organization should make sure that they’re added to the development team of that organization’s Apple Developer account. Apple is also encouraging organizations that don’t already have an Apple Developer account to set one up for this purpose, noting that it can waive the normal developer fees for “nonprofit organizations, accredited educational institutions, and government entities that plan to distribute only free apps on the App Store.”

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