is booting thousands of video game applications from its platforms in China as the government presses more on such content, illustrating the technology giant’s vulnerability to expressing pressure on its business.
The iPhone maker this month warned Chinese developers that a new wave of paid gaming apps risks being removed from its app stores, according to a memo seen by The Wall Street Journal, after the company removed thousands of such apps earlier this year.
The Chinese government four years ago began requiring videogames to be licensed before release, but developers can meet those requirements at Apple’s app store. Apple hasn’t said why that loophole exists or why the company started closing it this year. Foreign software developers lamented the changes, citing difficulties getting approval in China for their games.
The app store cleanup comes as China steps up efforts to control its internet, tightens content controls and censorship, including a request that Tripadvisor and more than 100 other apps be removed from Apple stores in the country. China’s Cyberspace Administration called the app illegal without explaining the violations Tripadvisor or other apps had committed, most of which were from Chinese developers. Tripadvisor declined to comment.
China’s Cyberspace Administration, which regulates cybersecurity, and the National Radio and Television Administration, which approves video games, did not respond to requests for comment.
In China, Apple’s app store surveillance highlights the delicate balance that the Cupertino, California-based company must strike when it comes to reaching Chinese consumers while also navigating official demand.
Earlier this month, Apple notified developers in a memo that premium games and those with in-app purchases had until December 31 to submit proof of government licenses.
“Only a fraction of these games can actually get a license, as far as we know,” said Rich Bishop, chief executive of ChinaInApp, which is working with Western companies to get their applications into China.
Trade tensions between China and the US and other countries made it more difficult to obtain licenses, he said.
Apple had 272,000 games on the China App Store last year, according to Sensor Tower, a company that tracks the app business globally. For 2020, there were at least 94,000 deletions from Chinese stores, far more than the 25,000 game apps that were removed last year.
While the full extent of software cleanup remains unclear, revenue growth from gaming at Apple’s Chinese stores appears to have slowed even as the segment has picked up speed globally. Sensor Tower estimates gaming revenue in China this year through November will increase by 14% to $ 13 billion. That compares to a 21% increase in China over the same range in 2019 and a 26% increase globally this year.
Apple’s app store has been attracting attention in various parts of the world. The company faces accusations from its competitors about anti-competitive behavior – which Apple has disputed – and regulatory oversight in the US and Europe.
“The veil of secrecy surrounding why they deleted this information is what causes him even more concern.”
Critics have questioned Apple’s decision to comply with some of China’s demands, saying they run counter to Chief Executive Tim Cook’s wish to defend freedom of expression, privacy and human rights.
New research from the Campaign for Accountability, an advocacy group in Washington, DC, identifies more than 3,000 apps that don’t exist in the China App Store but appear in other countries. The group, whose main supporters include David Magerman, the George Soros Open Society Foundation and Philanthropy Craig Newmark, have campaigned against big tech companies like Google and Apple.
Nearly a third of the apps not on the Chinese Apple store relate to what advocacy groups consider to be “human rights” topics, such as Tibetan Buddhism, protests in Hong Kong and gay or transgender rights or themes, while 5% deal with pornography or gambling. Another big part is games.
“If it’s going to be subject to political pressure, companies have to explain why and what they will do to lose if they don’t do that,” said Katie Paul, director of the campaign’s Technology Transparency Project. “The veil of secrecy surrounding why they deleted this information is what causes him even more concern.”
He acknowledged that the differences in Apple’s offering in China could come in part from developers censoring themselves, knowing their chances of approval in the country.
Apple faced rebukes from two sides: from Chinese state media for not doing enough to filter out prohibited content, and complaints from outside mainland China that it was subject to state censorship. The company says it complies with local laws.
In a statement Monday, Apple reiterated that its app stores are subject to local rules and sometimes field requests to remove certain apps.
“Apple studies this request carefully every time we receive it, and we often argue and disagree with these requests,” said a company spokesman. “Although the final decision is sometimes against our will, we are confident that our customers will be well served while we are in the country by providing them with access to products that promote self-expression with world-class privacy protection.”
Apple, as well as Google, deleted applications related to Hong Kong’s anti-government protests, including a crowdsourced map service that tracks police activity. The People’s Daily newspaper, which is run by the Chinese Communist Party, called the application “poisonous software.”
Apple said map apps violate local guidelines and laws, and Mr. Cook defended the company’s actions in a memo to staff, noting the difficulties involved. “National and international debates will outlive the rest of us, and while important, they do not regulate facts,” he wrote. “We believe this decision will best protect our users.”
In its latest disclosure report, Apple said it received 103 requests from Chinese authorities last year to remove 399 apps for lawlessness, most of which were related to pornography and illegal content. Apple said it honored most of those requests, withdrawing 381 apps. In addition, Apple said in response to a government request, it removed 129 apps in that period in China for so-called platform violations, such as illegal gambling.
—Yoko Kubota contributed to this article.
Write to Higgins Team at [email protected]
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