The New York Times has reported that all of its news-related apps have been removed from the Apple App Store in China. It has been confirmed that Apple made the decision to remove the apps in order to comply with a request from the Chinese regime.
News Apps censored
In its report, the New York Times says that their apps were removed from the Apple App Store on December 23rd. Both the English and Chinese language versions of the news apps are now unavailable in China, but the Times’ crossword puzzle and virtual reality apps are unaffected.
The move appears to be part of a concerted effort by the Chinese Communist Party to crack down on the New York Times, which was at the time working on a series of articles about the Communist regime.
It is thought (although not confirmed) that the request to remove the apps was made under the new Provisions on the Administration of Mobile Internet Application Information Services regulations [in Chinese] which were passed in June of this year.
Using the broadest possible terms, these state that apps in China cannot “engage in activities prohibited by laws and regulations such as endangering national security, disrupting social order and violating the legitimate rights and interests of others.”
As China’s main internet censorship body, the Cyberspace Administration of China, states on its website, this means that no apps available in China are permitted to publish what they describe as “prohibited” content.
By this, they mean any content which is critical of the Communist regime or references various topics that are not permitted to be discussed in China, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, the brutal suppression of Falun Gong, or the flourishing independence movements in places like Tibet and Hong Kong.
One surprise from this story is that Apple has been so complicit with the Chinese censorship machine. Apple has been a company which portrays an image of itself as morally strong and has stood up the US Government and others on various privacy-related issues in the past.
In a statement, Apple spokesperson Fred Sainz said, “We have been informed that the app is in violation of local regulations. As a result, the app must be taken down off the China App Store. When this situation changes, the App Store will once again offer the New York Times app for download in China.”
This deeply unsatisfactory response, which failed to identify which regulations the New York Times app was breaching, seems to suggest that Apple is willing to roll over every time the Chinese regime tells them to.
Failing to identify the regulation also makes it much harder for the New York Times to take steps to appeal the ruling.
Certainly, the New York Times made it clear in their statement that they were less than impressed with the stance Apple had taken. Eileen Murphy, a spokesperson, said they have approached Apple to look again at the decision.
“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,” she said.
It was also confirmed that there had been no contact between the Chinese regime and the New York Times’ Beijing bureau about the decision to block the apps.
Commentators have also been critical of Apple’s stance. Farzana Aslam, of the Center for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong, told the New York Times, “there’s something to be said about standing up for what you believe in and purporting to put principle before profit in a country like China… It’s not as simple as, ‘Because we operate in your jurisdiction, we’ll do anything you ask of us.’”
The blocking of the New York Times apps is the most high profile censorship of foreign media apps in China to date, although some other smaller outlets [in Chinese] have also seen their content blocked.
At a time when China has been seen to be cranking up it internet censorship yet another notch, it is perhaps not a complete surprise, but it nonetheless sets a precedent and sends a message to other large international media outlets still operating in China.
As things stand, the only way to access the New York Times apps is with a VPN on your smartphone or tablet, which allows you to circumvent Chinese state censorship. And it looks as though this will remain the case for the foreseeable future as well.