Censorship and isolation as China bans thousands of mobile apps

Image © 2024 Appcensorship. Used with permission.

When the US House of Representatives passed the legislation that would force ByteDance to sell TikTok, a popular video app, to an American company or face being banned in the US, citing national security concerns, the Chinese government criticized the move as “an act of bullying.” 

Yet, ironically, TikTok, along with other globally popular social media platforms, is also unavailable in China. Conversely, ByteDance tailor-made a local version, Douyin, for Chinese users, to comply with the country’s stringent censorship rules. In fact, TikTok is not an isolated case. Alibaba’s popular messaging platform, Ding Talk, is also unavailable in China, and its local version is called Ding Ding. 

A recent research report on Apple censorship in China, “Isolation by Design,” conducted by the App Censorship project under GreatFire, a censorship monitor group based in China, indicates that more than 60 percent of the world’s top 100 apps in China Apple App stores are either unavailable or inaccessible in China. These apps include Google Maps, YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook, Messenger and Twitter. 

A more compelling fact is that among the top 10 most downloaded apps worldwide, five are unavailable, and the rest are blocked from access in China. 

Both the censorship and localization of apps in China have resulted in “a distinct isolation” of Chinese iOS users from the global app ecosystem. While China has warned the West against economic decoupling, the country’s censorship system is designed for the purpose of isolation, as highlighted by the research team.

Most censored app sector: Games

As of March 2023, 11,026 out of a total of 40,049 apps were unavailable in the China Apple Stores. The ratio of unavailability was 27.53 percent, the highest among 175 region-based App Stores run by Apple, according to the App Censorship report. 

The top ten categories of censored apps are 1. Games (5,532), 2. Utilities, which includes VPNs (501), 3. Education (355), 4. Productivity (326), 5. Social Networking (324), 6. Entertainment (302), 7. Book (283), 8. Lifestyle (234), 9. News (205), and 10. Finance (193).

Games are the most censored type of app, likely because there are more game apps than other types in the App Store. In addition, the Chinese authorities have rolled out a real name verification of online gaming accounts since 2007 as part of its anti-gaming addiction program. Then, beginning in 2016, all games must go through a licensing and approval process before they enter China. In November 2019, Chinese authorities announced a new policy restricting children under 18 to access games during weekday evenings. 

All these policies make it extremely difficult for overseas game apps to enter Chinese app stores despite substantial growth in the domestic game market, with projections indicating an increase from USD 66.13 billion in 2024 to USD 95.51 billion in 2029. Moreover, while overseas games face barriers to entering the Chinese market, Chinese games account for 47 percent of the global mobile gaming revenue, according to China Briefing, a Chinese business news outlet. 

Eight sensitive categories

Aside from the game sector, the App Censorship research team has identified eight sensitive categories from the list of banned apps.

  1. Virtual private network – VPN: 240 unavailable apps including Lantern VPN, ProtonVPN, ExpressVPN, Nord VPN.

VPNs are virtual private networks used for secured communication. They can also be used to circumvent internet censorship as they create an alternative path for accessing banned content. In 2017, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) passed a regulation requiring licenses for VPN services within the country, and Apple took down 674 VPN apps from its China App store. 

  1. Privacy & Digital Security: 29 unavailable apps including Signal, ProtonMail, DuckDuckGo. 

Apps in this category offer privacy protection services, such as ad-blocking, secure browsing, antivirus protection, encrypted communication, and more. 

  1. LGBTQ+ & Dating: 67 unavailable apps, including Hinge, Adam4Adam, weBelong, and Grindr.

This category includes social networking platforms and dating apps, as well as book and game apps featuring LGBTQ+ content. 

Although homosexuality was decriminalized in China in 1997, content that depicts same-sex relations is still defined as “vulgar” by censorship authorities. Since the passage of the Cybersecurity Law in 2018, the crackdown on LGBTQ+ content has been intensified on social media platforms. In 2021, Chinese social media giant Tencent shut down hundreds of LGBTQ+ groups on WeChat. However, a number of popular LGBTQ+ apps, including the domestic dating app Blued, are still available.  

  1. News, Media & Information: 170 unavailable apps, including NYTimes, BBC News, and Reuters.

In addition to news sites, this category also covers RSS feed readers and podcasts. The takedown of news and information apps is an extension of China’s Great Firewall (GFW) internet censorship system, which blocks its citizens from accessing tens of thousands of domains

  1. Social Media & Communication: 96 unavailable apps, including Skype, LinkedIn, Viber, Damus, and Line.

Twitter and Facebook are listed in the Apple Store but blocked by the GFW. The Chinese government requires social media operators to comply with local censorship laws. For example, LinkedIn attempted to survive in the Chinese market by complying with Chinese laws by taking down sensitive content after the passage of the Cybersecurity Law in 2018. Three years later, the company shut down its LinkedIn platform, replacing it with InCareer, which targeted employment information only. Last year, InCareer phased out, and LinkedIn left China completely.

On April 19, 2024, Apple removed WhatsApp and Threads from its China App Store, citing national security concerns. The Chinese legal framework makes it impossible for overseas social media apps to enter the Chinese market.

  1. Tibet & Buddhism: 41 unavailable apps, including Himalaya Lib, MonlamGrandTibetanDictionary.

The research team explained one rationality behind the censorship:

Any direct or indirect connection to the Dalai Lama is sufficient reason for an app to be banned from the App Store. This was the case with the MonlamGrandTibetanDictionary app. Initially, the app was available upon its release but was taken down between June and September 2022, shortly after the Dalai Lama inaugurated the New Monlam Grand Tibetan Dictionary, the source of the app's content.

  1. Uyghur: 72 unavailable apps, including RFA Uyghur, Hayatnuri, Awazliq Kitap, and UYGHUR MAN.

Within this category, books and education apps related to the Quran are censored, as pointed out by the research team.

  1. Religion: 144 unavailable apps, including the Bible App by Olive Tree, Quran Majeed, TORAH, JW Library.

The research team pointed out that many of the banned apps are from the book apps category, as the absence of a Chinese ISBN could trigger a takedown in the App Store.  

Apple’s inadequate commitment to business human rights

The research team criticized Apple’s lack of accountability and transparency in its censorship practice in China as very often, the company did not specify what content in the app contravenes the guidelines or the Chinese law. In addition, the appeal process made it difficult for the developers to reverse the takedown decision. 

The company’s complicit role in assisting the Chinese government censorship, which infringes individual rights to free expression and privacy protection, has violated Apple’s own human rights policy and the UN’s guiding principle to business human rights. The research team highlighted that the internet giant’s compliance with the Chinese government’s requests would lead to “an increasing trend of digital isolation for Chinese iOS users, creating even more barriers for foreign journalists and other members of civil society.”

It thus called for Apple to strengthen its transparency practices by revealing details of the Chinese government’s takedown requests and its own review process and to strengthen its commitments to human rights by challenging arbitrary takedown requests. The team also called for governments and lawmakers to scrutinize Apple’s practices and enact laws to ensure global digital and human rights standards.

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