EFF and 10 human rights organizations called out Apple for enabling China's censorship and surveillance regime through overly broad content restrictions on the App Store in China, and for its decision to move iCloud backups and encryption keys to within China. In a letter to Philip Schiller, Apple senior vice president and App Store lead, the groups asked for more transparency about App Store takedowns and to meet with Apple executives to discuss the company's decisions and ways Apple can rectify harms against Apple users most affected by the removals.
Apple removed thousands of applications in China, including news apps by Quartz and the New York Times, foreign software services like Google Earth, and network applications like Tor and other VPN apps. Last year, Apple capitulated to state pressure to remove HKmap.live, a crowdsourced map application being used by Hong Kong protestors.
According to Apple’s transparency report, hundreds of applications were taken down in the first half of 2019 due to “pornography or illegal content”. In this case, “Illegal content” spans the breadth of China’s own draconian Internet security laws. In the letter, EFF and its partners asked that if Apple removes apps due to violations of local law, the company should pressure governments to be specific, transparent, and consistent in their requirements, and work to provide app developers and the general public with written documentation of the specific law violated, as well as the authority that is requiring the app’s removal. If Apple wishes to claim it is obliged to remove content in line with local law, they need to prove that’s behind the takedown, as opposed to the company caving to informal pressure and its own commercial incentives to keep in the good books of Chinese leadership.
The locked-down design of the App Store gives Apple unilateral control over its contents; unlike Android users, iOS users can’t sideload applications without first jailbreaking their phones entirely. Apple justifies its DRM-laden walled garden by saying it sets stronger security and privacy standards for applications by reviewing them. However, by centralizing that power, Apple has given governments a lever to impose their own measures of control over billions of users.