Apple kowtows to China’s censors; removes circumvention app

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Trying to jump the Great Firewall of China? There’s an app for that. At least there was, until Apple took it down. Apple removed OpenDoor, a censorship circumvention tool, from its app store with no explanation or notification. To one Chinese Internet expert, it signals that Apple has taken their willingness to self-censor to a “whole new level”.

“Pretty much the only tool that provides free Internet, free of charge, is now gone,” states Kevin Wang, a “greatly disappointed” Chinese high school student. He used OpenDoor to surf the web anonymously and stay in touch with American friends on Facebook. “I had recommended the app to almost all of my friends willing to stand against unfair censorship and control over the Internet,” he says.
From Iran to Pakistan
OpenDoor is a browser app that reroutes its user’s traffic through its own servers to circumvent any blocks imposed by the user’s Internet Service Provider or the Great Firewall (GFW). Judging by its Facebook page, the tool is popular wherever the Internet is restricted: users from Iran to Pakistan sing its praises.
A large chunk of its users are Chinese. OpenDoor’s lead developer, who wishes to remain anonymous, states that the tool has been downloaded about 800,000 times, and that approximately a third of the downloads stem from China.
Downloads dropped to zero
In the days leading up to its removal, about 2000 Chinese users were downloading the app each day. Then, on July 11, the number of downloads suddenly dropped to zero. OpenDoor received no notification of its removal. “We learned about [it] purely through our users’ reporting,” the U.S.-based developer notes.
The developers made numerous requests to Apple for an explanation without result for a month. RNW’s request for comment is still unanswered. However, following that request, Apple did finally officially notify the developer on August 28th, stating that the app “includes content that is illegal in China.”
Apple states in its rules for developers that apps “must comply with all legal requirements in any location where they are made available to users. It is the developer’s obligation to understand and conform to all local laws.”
No First
It is not the first time that Apple has removed apps from its China store for content that it deemed “illegal in China,” such as a news app by NTD (New Tang Dynasty), a U.S.-based television broadcaster founded by Falun Gong members, and an app that displayed banned books on Tibet by Wang Lixiong.
A Chinese Internet expert, who wishes to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardise the acceptance of his own iOS app that was recently submitted to the Apple app store, notes that developers from NTD and the book app at least received notifications from Apple when they removed the apps. The expert also points out that “even though the interpretation of law might be problematic,” at least there does exist established legal precedent in which Falun Gong and Tibet-related content was prohibited.
No Legal Basis
Yet with OpenDoor’s removal, the Chinese Internet expert judges that “the censorship of Apple has reached a whole new level.”
In OpenDoor’s case it is hard to argue that the app contains “illegal content”, since the app is merely a browser and contains no content itself. So the Internet expert was “truly outraged” when the app was taken down unexplained, since to him it “meant Apple was starting to comply with orders without any legal basis, not even the pretense of legal basis.”
The Internet expert believes Apple realised that because it could “not even give OpenDoor some vague violations,” it initially opted for a silent take down, “which is more like an act by a domestic company, (…) taking down content because of a phone call from the officials.”
Since Apple has not responded to requests for comment, it is not clear whether the company took down the apps based on court orders, or how it otherwise decides that the apps contradict local laws.
Corporate responsibility
Apple is not the only Western company in China that has struggled to balance its business interests and corporate responsibility. In 2006 and 2007, Yahoo faced congressional hearings in the US and a storm of criticism after it released user information that landed political dissident Shi Tao in jail. Google came under close media scrutiny when it initially decided to comply with censorship of search results.  
In Shi Tao’s case, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang originally struck much the same line as Apple and stated that “if you want to do business [in China], you have to comply.” While legally in the right, Yang later formally apologized to Shi Tao’s family and Yahoo offered an undisclosed amount of “financial, humanitarian and legal support.”
Sharon Hom of Human Rights in China notes that whereas Yahoo and Google have since co-founded the Global Network Initiative (GNI), which works with human rights groups and academic experts in an effort to protect the rights of their users worldwide, Apple has remained extremely opaque about its practices.
Hom, whose organisation is also a member of GNI, believes that Apple “has to get out and work with other stakeholders, whether it is with the GNI or not. The business cannot address the human rights challenges by themselves.”
OpenDoor’s future
The developers of OpenDoor are still left with many questions. In an email to Apple, OpenDoor states: “it is unclear to us how a simple browser app could include illegal contents, since it's the user’s own choosing of what websites to view. Using the same definition, wouldn't all browser apps, including Apple's own Safari and Google's Chrome, include illegal contents?”
The developers also note that if Apple considers the app's capability to circumvent censorship a violation of Chinese law, then it is applying a double standard by allowing other VPN apps in the Apple store.
OpenDoor has not received any responses to their questions, and is now working on an Android version of the app. “If all goes well, it should be available in a few months,” the lead developer predicts.