Apple has shown that it is willing to bend over backwards to keep the Chinese government happy and maintain its position in the lucrative market by removing the New York Times app from its App Store.
Apple says it removed the app following a request from an unnamed body in China, because it was “in violation of local regulations.” When asked for more information about the removal by the Times, Apple failed to say what those specific regulations are, who asked it to remove the app or if it had been presented with a court order to do so.
Both the English and Chinese versions of the app were removed on December 23, just days before the Times published a major investigation into how Apple was the recipient of billions of dollars in subsidies from the Chinese government.
The removal of the app echoes the blocking of the New York times website by Chinese authorities in 2012 following the publication of a series of articles on the wealth amassed by the family of Wen Jiabao, who was then China’s prime minister.
U.S. tech companies are eager to gain access to the huge Chinese market, though not all are willing to go to the lengths Apple is. Google famously left China in 2010 rather than censor its search results, and as a result its search engine and mobile app store are not accessible in the country. Facebook has made it clear that it wants to gain access to the country but it would need to censor users in the same way LinkedIn does in order to be granted access.
A report in November suggested Facebook was internally testing a tool to allow it censor such content. But even if Facebook gave in to China’s demands, that may still not be enough.
“The Chinese have frequently made it clear to technology companies that access to the domestic market is dependent on playing by Beijing’s rules,” Adam Segal, an expert on Chinese technology policy with the Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News.
China has consistently made it clear that it is unwilling to give any leeway to Western companies when it comes to operating within its borders. The government is eager to develop its own indigenous tech industry so it is not inclined to accommodate the interests or values of western firms. “If those firms do not want to adhere to Chinese political demands, Beijing is happy to exclude them, as this will enable domestic companies to develop more easily,” Tim Heath, an analyst with the Rand Corporation told VICE News.
Segal says Apple’s decision to give in to China’s demands could cause “some reputational costs, especially if Apple is going to trumpet how it values free speech and access to information.” It may also draw people’s attention back to the question of whether Apple gives Chinese security agencies access to customer data or has put backdoors in its products sold in the country — both allegations Apple has denied.
Amnesty International researcher Patrik Poon told CNN that the decision by Apple was part of a wider trend among big tech companies to do whatever the Chinese government asks: “It’s extremely worrying that Apple is kowtowing to China’s censorship by deleting New York Times apps,” Poon said.
In recent years, China has become one of Apple’s most important markets, with iPhone sales driving huge amounts of revenue. Apple also relies on factories located in China to make the vast majority of its product through the Taiwanese company Foxconn.
Apps from other media outlets including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, BBC News, the Financial Times, ABC News, CNN, and Reuters remained accessible on the App Store in China on Thursday.
Despite having its website blocked in 2012, the Times had been able give Chinese customers access to its content using a redesigned iOS app which allowed customers to bypass the firewall. The app will continue to work for those who have already downloaded it, but anyone else in China will need to access an international version of the App Store which would require a credit card registered in that country.
In a statement the Times called the move a “deeply regrettable decision” with spokesperson Eileen Murphy adding: “The request by the Chinese authorities to remove our apps is part of their wider attempt to prevent readers in China from accessing independent news coverage by The New York Times of that country, coverage which is no different from the journalism we do about every other country in the world.”