Apple CEO Tim Cook
Spencer Platt | Getty Images
Apple also removed a news outlet’s app, Quartz, from the App Store in China on Wednesday, citing content that is “illegal in China,” a Quartz spokesperson said, adding that Quartz has been covering pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong extensively.
Apple said that it removed the mapping app because it “has been used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong” and has been “used to target and ambush police.” Apple also said that it had been in contact with the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau. (Google also removed Hong Kong protest apps from its Android app store this week.) Apple added that Chinese authorities told it that the Quartz app didn’t comply with local laws.
Because Apple controls its App Store, which is the only way for most people to install apps on iPhones, it can effectively decide which software is acceptable for iPhone users, making it an access point for governments which want to remove content from their countries.
But while attention is now focused on how China’s government puts pressure on international businesses, Apple has had to carefully tread around Beijing’s pressure points for years.
Apple finds itself in the middle of controversy as China and the Communist Party are increasingly leaning on international companies to quell discussion or distribution of content that supports pro-Democracy protests in Hong Kong.
For example, organizations and businesses in China have been cutting relationships and putting pressure on the NBA after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong.
Apple has a closer relationship with China than other tech companies, like Facebook and Google, which have significant products that are banned from the country.
Apple does nearly all of its production in China, and needs to protect the massive supply chain that produces over 200 million iPhones per year.
Beyond that, mainland China is also a key market for Apple. Apple reported $51 billion in revenue in 2018 from “Greater China,” which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan (in line with the Communist Party’s preferred geography). That’s Apple’s third-biggest region, after the Americas and Europe. Apple’s total revenue for 2018 was $265.6 billion.
A balancing act
CEO of Apple Tim Cook attends China Development Forum 2019 at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on March 23, 2019 in Beijing, China.
VCG | Getty Images
Apple’s relationship with China has been scrutinized before, most notably in a 2017 letter from Senators Ted Cruz and Patrick Leahy.
Apple had recently taken several virtual private networking (VPN) apps off of its App Store platform in China. VPN apps enable users to route all their web traffic through a remote server, and VPNs are often used to access content that’s blocked by China’s so-called “great firewall.”
“We are concerned that Apple may be enabling the Chinese government’s censorship and surveillance of the internet,” the senators wrote.
Apple responded in a letter signed by Cynthia Hogan, Apple’s vice president for public policy. It summarizes Apple’s approach to the China issue — that Apple believes that by doing business in the country, it promotes “the free flow of ideas and information,” and at the same time, Apple has to follow the laws of every country it operates in.
“We believe that Apple can best promote fundamental rights, including the right of free expression, by being engaged even where we may disagree with a particular country’s law,” Hogan wrote.
A recent security dustup between Apple and Google also highlighted how carefully tech companies need to handle how Beijing will interpret given events.
An elite Google security team recently published findings that suggested that simply visiting a given website on your iPhone could unleash a chain of hacks, giving the attacker access to text messages, photos, and contacts.
Google didn’t mention that the iPhone hacks were part of a larger program that also targeted Windows and Android computers and phones, and it didn’t mention who had built these websites and designed the malware. (A Google spokesperson at the time declined to identify the attackers and didn’t offer a reason why Google didn’t identify the group.)
Apple responded to Google, but it also didn’t mention the attackers. Apple did however, mention who the hackers were targeting: Uighurs, a muslim minority in China.
An estimated 1.5 million Uighurs have been forced to attend detention and “re-education” camps by the Chinese government in the region of Xinjiang, many of them for violating what Amnesty International describes as a “highly restrictive and discriminatory” law that China says is designed to combat extremism.
The only group with the resources and motivation to target Uiguirs with extremely valuable hacks would be the Chinese government. But Apple’s response to Google doesn’t include the word “China” and it avoids connecting the dots about which group actually was able to hack an iPhone.
“By far the biggest paradox about modern Apple is the fact that the company is increasingly building its reputation around protecting privacy even as it is the tech company that is by far the most invested in China, whose government is more aggressive than any other in ensuring that on the Internet in particular, but also in day-to-day life, there is no privacy at all,” tech analyst Ben Thompson observed in a newsletter last month.
HKMap.Live was a minor app, although it had shot to the No. 1 overall free app in Hong Kong before it was removed, according to Sensor Tower, an app analytics firm. Sensor Tower estimates it was downloaded over 50,000 times total in Hong Kong, and 70,000 times globally, including downloads from outside of Hong Kong. (The app can still be accessed through the Safari browser on the iPhone.)
Quartz is a respected news operation, but China had already told Apple to remove the New York Times from the App Store in the country in 2017.
Some moves Apple has made in China are more minor than access to news or crowdsourced maps of police for protestors. Apple didn’t comment on reports that the latest version of iOS has removed the Taiwan flag emoji in Hong Kong and Macau.
But taken as a whole, they paint a picture that Apple is forced by Chinese authorities to make compromises to preserve its business interests.
Here’s Apple’s official statement on removing the HK Live app:
We created the App Store to be a safe and trusted place to discover apps. We have learned that an app, HKmap.live, has been used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong. Many concerned customers in Hong Kong have contacted us about this app and we immediately began investigating it. 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, and we have removed it from the App Store.