Apple appears to be facing difficult choices enforcing its App Store policies in China this week, with pressure from the Chinese government forcing it to block and remove apps that don’t follow party lines but may not otherwise be in violation of any laws or even Apple’s own App Store policies.
The controversy began earlier this week when Apple refused to allow an app that would be used by pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. The app in question, HKmap Live, was actually an iOS implementation of a service that was available directly from a mobile-optimized web site, and allowed users to track the locations of law enforcement officials.
To do this, the HKmap service uses crowdsourcing, simply allowing users to report the locations where police have been observed to be operating. This is not unlike how Waze operates to advise users of things like speed traps, and since it’s really just letting users reports things to each other, it’s difficult to see how it would run afoul of any laws.
Except, according to Apple, apparently it does.
Apple’s Initial Rejection
To be clear, HKmap Live is not an app that was previously available on the App Store, so this is not a case of Apple pulling an app from sale, but rather refusing to approve one in the first place — arguably a much lower bar for rejection.
When Apple first rejected the app earlier this week, the reason given to the developer is that it was engaging in illegal activity by allowing users to “evade law enforcement.”
Your app contains content — or facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity — that is not legal… Specifically, the app allowed users to evade law enforcement.
Some supposed that this initial rejection may have simply been the result of a decision by a lower-level front-line App Store reviewer, so the developer submitted an appeal to Apple, arguing that the app was not only in fact legal under Chinese law, but pointed to the policy of police in Hong Kong to issue warnings to unlawful gatherings of protestors before escalating to any further action.
As a result, Apple overturned that prior decision, and chose to allow HKmap Live to appear on the App Store in China.
Threats of ‘Consequences’
Although that should have been the end of the story, it seems that Apple’s decision to allow the app didn’t sit well with the Chinese government, and state newspapers and other media loudly criticized Apple’s decision, even making vague threats that there would be “consequences” to Apple for doing so.
In the Chinese state-run media, Apple was accused of being “an accomplice to the rioters” and that the company was “mixing business with politics” and engaging in “illegal acts,” and that the company “has to think about the consequences of its unwise and reckless decision.”
Further, state media outlet China Daily claimed Apple was “providing a gateway for ‘toxic apps’” and “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” by “twisting the facts” of what’s going on in Hong Kong.
According to the New York Times, Apple removed the HKmaps Live from the App Store today, “at the request of law enforcement,” claiming it was doing so in order to protect the police working in the city.
The app displays police locations and we have verified with the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement. This app violates our guidelines and local laws.Apple, in a statement to the New York Times
The developer of HKmap Live naturally disagreed with Apple’s rejection and the claims by the Hong Kong officials, stating that there is no evidence to support these accusations, and adding that the app “never solicits, promotes, or encourages criminal activity,” but rather just “consolidates information from users and public sources.”
The ‘Tip of the Iceberg’
Chinese media have referred to HKmaps Live as “the tip of the iceberg,” suggesting that it opens the doors to other types of apps and media that fly in the face of Chinese state policy. One example cited is a song supporting Hong Kong independence that has also surfaced on Apple Music in China, which is again pointed to as an example that Apple is operating against the Chinese government’s best interests.
However, the “tip of the iceberg” argument goes the other way too, with The Verge reporting today that Apple has also pulled the Quartz news app from the Chinese App Store at the request of the Chinese government, as a result of the news service’s coverage of the situation in Hong Kong. This is perhaps less surprising, with the entire Quartz website also now being blocked in China, but still shows that Apple is walking a dangerous road when it comes to staying within the lines of Chinese policy.