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GreatFire is tracking Apple iOS applications for instances of censorship (applecensorship.com)
223 points by feross 42 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 70 comments




This text (or link) should be on the site's homepage.


Which site are you referring to? Apple’s, Mailchimp, or something else?


I think they mean Applecensorship.com


Yes.


Please note that while Apple itself may censor applications in regions, creators of the apps may choose to limit their distributions as well. For example: Bank of America's mobile banking app isn't available in Pakistan where I currently am, but this website wouldn't differentiate between that type of censorship or Apple's censorship.

But, personally, I still think this is a great idea!


I would hesitate to call that "censorship" at all. Some apps simply aren't relevant in a country because they're associated with a physical service which doesn't exist there. For example, a number of food delivery apps (like Uber Eats and Grubhub) don't operate in China, and as such have chosen to not make their app available there.


App Store search is at least partly to blame for this too. For example Uber is available in France but of course it does not work in all cities. The countries is just a larger version of the same thing.

Ideally apps that have regional restrictions should be able to declare that and then when you do a search it would not show results outside of the scope unless you searched for the exact name or enabled outside of region search.

Users are partly to blame too, selling an untranslated app in France will bring down tons of 1 star reviews specifically calling out lack of French version. I suppose some developers just decide to not deal with that and retire the app from the store.


And nobody ever leaves the country. Or if they do, they're totally willing to go through the entire giant hassle of switching their account for a few days.


Then take that up with the individual app developer.

It has nothing to do with Apple or censorship.


I was objecting to the statement that some apps are not relevant in those countries.


At a guess, restricting an area-specific app to its service area diminishes the number of unanswerable support questions and one-star reviews by people outside the service area.

Pity for expats (like me).


That's a pain in the ass, but it's not censorship.


Yeah, that's how I found out BotA didn't distribute their app in Pakistan


You have to specifically go into settings and change your app store country


I've published a few apps that run the same platform on different countries with different branding (name, logo, theme, etc.)

I had to restrict each of them to their own country (i.e. preventing German users from reaching the French app), otherwise during the app-store submission reviews, the reviewer would reject us because according to them the app being reviewed is a ripoff of the other apps of the same account.

It's like:

    Your app "Gmail UK" is a ripoff of another app of the store: "Gmail US".
Fun times.


This was the point I was about to make, some apps don't want users all over the world due to country limitations.


The app specifically says "United States" and "China". There is no comparison with other countries. As a result i would guess it only checks those two countries' app store page


Doesn’t this tool focus on removals? Ie app was deployed but then not available.


No, it does not. As far as I can tell, it's simply comparing search results for the two countries -- apps which have never been distributed in China will still appear in red. Try searching for "Uber Eats", for example.


I'm not sure how this shows censorship. It just shows you if an app is available in China.

Lots of apps aren't available in China or outside of where the developer is based.


Some people and groups have quite the axe to grind, and the buzzword guaranteed to work in this crowd is “censorship” so that’s what they’re calling it. Never mind who is actually doing the censoring, or where censorship and curation part ways. It’s emotive language designed to inflame passions at the expense of reason.


It's also a really, really, really hard line to draw. Lots of countries have laws and regulations that may require a company to withdraw apps from an app store. If you had a Wolfenstein game in your app store, you'd have to "censor" it in the German app store. China is especially censorious and authoritarian, but your only options are (a) don't do business at all in an especially censorious and authoritarian country, thereby censoring all of the apps, or (b) censor the apps the government wants you to censor, which is what you already have to do in lots of other countries anyway.


In this case, it isn't Apple censorship. But even if Apple was the one to pull an app due to a country's local laws, we can't expect Apple to start refusing removal requests when it threatens the app store (or worse, Apple products) being banned in the entire country.


This site allows you to compare with other countries too. Search for VPN, Communism, Privacy. Try Brazil, Argentina, even Russia. Results are mostly similar to US.


Isn't this just "Apple complies with local laws in China (etc.) requiring them to remove VPN apps and hand over data belonging to political dissidents?"

Greatfire is right: Apple could indeed take a stand for freedom - if the shareholders demanded it and and were willing to shut down Apple's iPhone sales and manufacturing business, which is responsible for the bulk of Apple's income and profits.

Google famously left China, but Google is more of an advertising company than a hardware company.


Still I find it comical that people thinks Apple keeps the moral high ground. I personally find Apples position disgusting and super hypocritical. Sure, they are the white knight that keeps you safe from other monsters, only if you avert your gaze from China. At least Google so far sticked to its decision, and hopefully keeps it that way.


Pixel would be manufactured in China, though the sales might be very low. As I assume other google hardware.


As many have noted, you can't tell from this site whether apple decided to remove an app from the China app store or the developer decided never offer it in that coutnry. Because of that, it's not useful for calling out censorship.

We do know, however, that Apple does certain certain apps and functionality on device for China. Censorship of the News app is one such example: https://www.larrysalibra.com/how-apple-censors-news-in-china


I don't understand how to use the site, but here's another good resource: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship_by_Apple


This is not entirely accurate. It will also show apps missing in China that the author has decided not to publish in that region.


Reminds me of Apple's censorship of US assassinations: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/538kan/apple-just...

There's a reason why centrally curated platforms are dangerous, and why Free Software Principals reject them.

What's with the downvotes? More censorship?


That app shows up in the app store. What changed?


It mentions it in the article. Supporters keep putting it back up and Apple continuously takes it down (under pressure of the US gov).

For context, the app was created to track human rights abuses during the disclosure of the US's covert surveillance and assassination program in the Middle East. This was a scandal for the United States because it was disclosed that they were killing innocent people with knowledge and through reclassification, even killing children (internally using the terminology "fun sized terrorists").

The pressure to remove the app was brought to Apple during a sweep to control the scandal and public perception of the program.

(Given the public conversation has moves far past the scandal, and the Trump administration continues the indiscriminate assassinations, that censorship program does seem to have succeeded)


Just speculation, but I wonder if Apple kicks it out simply because it is controversial and very political, and they just don't want to deal with it.

It's also a fairly low-value proposition for a native app, in my opinion. It's really the kind of content worthy of a web page, that's about it. Not sure that contributes to Apple's vendetta against it, however.


If you read the reporting on the subject, you'll learn it is from government pressure.

I agree with you, and think its endemic of the app ecosystem.


China commands such a massive market which makes it hard to rationalize neglecting it, purely from a revenue standpoint. Going to be interesting to see how Western companies respond to the continuing rise of authoritarian policies in China, and whether or not it influences their business practices outside of China.


It's politics, but I choose to not have my app distributed in China due to bot hyperactivity ruining my metrics.


Interesting I typed in Clash of Clans and found all of the Clash of Clans clone games like Clash of Kings, etc. Only the Chinese App store had Chinese letters in their name.


I don’t get the purpose of “VPN apps” as opposed to just signing up for a VPN service and setting it up in iOS settings.


Using an app allows you to use a custom protocol. Standard VPN protocols do a good job of protecting your information, but they don't even try to hide the fact that you're using a VPN at all, so they're not suitable for a situation where you're trying to get around a system that tries to block them completely.


That's silly. That's like wondering why people use awful streaming sites to watch movies and not download high quality torrents instead.

Ease of use, easy of discovery, learning curves, etc.


That one probably also has something to do with getting letters from MAFIAA if you torrent but not if you use streaming sites.


You have no problems with the RIAA once you move to Private Trackers, but that does take a considerable time sink and a bit of dedication to breach. So point still stands.


What’s hard about going into settings and then

General -> VPN -> add configuration and entering

- Server

- remote ID

- Username

- Password

This is less setup than adding an email account.


Except an email account is something everyone has to use in the day to day, and getting to that point was a 15 year battle. Go down and work with the IT department sometime, it's incredible the blind spots you'll see. The calrity of your knowledge is far from universal


So who is the set of people who are both technically savvy enough to know they want a VPN but can’t follow the set up instructions I listed above if they were given by a VPN provider?


People with enough technical knowledge to know that they need a VPN to evade something like the Great Firewall, but not with enough technical knowledge to set it up manually.

They may have heard of so-and-so app, install it, and boom, it works. That's very appealing, especially if it's a custom protocol that is supposedly harder to detect.

Or maybe their grandkids have set it up for them, and don't want it to be any harder than it needs to be. Yada yada.

It's not really hard to come up with answers like this. The two options aren't "complete expert" and "blithering idiot".


You have obviously never Worked tech support.


There are many configurations you cannot do via the Settings UI. Want to auto-connect / connect on demand? iOS supports this but not in the UI. For me it is important that if the VPN disconnects, the system will reconnect instead of silently using no VPN for all my traffic.


Because many users of VPNs are doing so to bypass country detection.

I regularly jump between UK, US and France in my VPN app.


I think to try to use techniques to prevent the GFW from killing the connection.


The easiest way would simply be for their website to template out a .mobileconfig. It’s just xml, it’d be relatively painless, even more so than trying to fill in the settings yourself.

The only sensible reasons I could see for an app are either to deliver the content to the user in the manner the user is most accustomed to, or to be able to integrate billing as in-app subscriptions, etc.


Setting up a VPN in settings works just fine, for that one server. I use NordVPN for example, and they allow me to pick from a ton of servers in any country on the fly, which would be nearly impossible (or very unrealistic) to do with the settings app. It also lets my see the load status and distance of various servers.


VPN is just a generic term for accessing all of the internet. The software used is much more complex (hiding from the Great Firewall) (shadowsocks for instance)


Isn't it Chinese censorship - as reflected by Apple App store in China vs USA?


No, the tool allows you to compare availability against a number of countries in addition to China.


Will Apple allow their trademark to be used in this way? Or does it fall under the “____ sucks” provision of free speech?


It falls under the "nominative use" defense to an assertion of trademark infringement. Free speech has nothing to do with it.

Trademarks are intended to provide consumers with the confidence that the products they're buying really come from the producer they claim to come from. As such, you're prohibited from assembling your own computer and branding it Apple; you've never been prohibited from referring to Apple.


It was my understanding that this doesn’t cover using a trademark in a domain name. I could be wrong; my only experience of this is that “WordPress” is a trademark, and therefore it’s generally accepted that any WordPress related product is not allowed to use the trademark in their domains.


I am not a lawyer, but this 6th Circuit case might be relevant: Taubman v. Webfeats.

"Even if [the] use is commercial, it must still lead to a likelihood of confusion to be violative of the Lanham Act. 15 U.S.C. § 1114(1). In Planned Parenthood, the defendant used the plaintiff's trade name as a domain name, without the qualifying moniker 'sucks,' or any other such addendum to indicate that the plaintiff was not the proprietor of the website. In contrast, 'taubmansucks.com' removes any confusion as to source. We find no possibility of confusion and no Lanham Act violation."

https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-6th-circuit/1213191.html.


If it is true that that is "generally accepted", it's not for any reason based in the law.


Why do retail entities refer to the Super Bowl by pseudonyms (e.g "The Big Game") rather than its true name?


This is a good question, and there's some more information about it here: https://www.broadcastlawblog.com/2013/01/articles/advertiser...

In summary:

"If “Super Bowl” is used by an individual or business to describe the event and not used for commercial intent, then individuals and businesses can use the term. For example, a grocery store can say “Make sure to stock up on chips for the Super Bowl” but the store cannot say they are the “Official Super Bowl Chip Stop.”"

That said, you can just avoid infringing entirely by calling it The Big Game


Yes, I would think so as well, but every retail entity avoids saying "Super Bowl".

Maybe everyone is afraid to be first into the breach, like so many avoided using "Happy Birthday to You" for decades in fear of the bogus, broad copyright claim


Great site.

Additionally, this doesn't show the endless number of apps that Apple censored from all countries' iOS app stores because they contained or might contain images of human bodies.

It's not something the site can do, but it's important to remember that this is just the tip of the iceberg: at least in China they are required by law to block e.g. VPN apps; no such equivalent law requires them to ban apps that contain nipples in the United States; that censorship is entirely voluntary.


In the US a lot of questionable filtering is done because of religious or common concepts that are not very sensible but do influence the amount of money a company can make.

For example, a christian religious group might take offence to software containing other religions, and if that group is big enough, they might consider not buying anything from a company until a change is made. This basically goes for any subject and any group, but in the case of the USA, a lot of normal things are considered taboo by many groups of people (i.e. sex ed / sex health / pictures of bodies / alcohol / everything that is not american). Because some of those groups can be very large and very influential, 'normal' things get banned or ignored by those groups and as a result less money is to be made.


> ban apps that contain nipples in the United States; that censorship is entirely voluntary

Is that true? Because that would cut out the Tumblr, Imgur, Reddit, Flickr, Twitter, etc. apps. And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.


I urge you to look into why the Reddit NSFW search looks and works the way it does, and why Tumblr alienated their userbase this quarter. In both cases you will find the root cause to be Apple app store policies.

Steve Jobs once famously cited iOS as having “freedom from porn”, and went on to say that people would care more about it being blocked “when you have kids”.

For being a California peacemonger, he missed out on big swaths of being a hippie.


> Tumblr [...] root cause to be Apple app store policies

No, that was almost certainly because of SESTA/FOSTA and was underway well before they had their child porn snafu that got them temporarily booted from the App Store.




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