Apple’s App Store in China launches pressure games

Apple Inc.

AAPL 2.85%

launches thousands of video game applications on its Chinese platform as the government further limits this content, illustrating the technology giant’s vulnerability to state pressure on its business.

The iPhone maker warned Chinese developers this month that a new wave of paid gaming apps risks being removed from its app store, according to a note viewed by The Wall Street Journal, after the company removed thousands of such apps early. this year.

The Chinese government began applying for video games four years ago before it was released, but developers have managed to exceed the requirement in the Apple app store. Apple has not said why there is a loophole or why the company has started closing it this year. Foreign software developers lament the change, citing difficulties in obtaining approval in China for their games.

The purge of the app store comes as China has stepped up its efforts to control its Internet, tightening content controls and censorship, including demanding that Tripadvisor and 100 other apps be removed from the country’s Apple store. The Chinese Cyberspace Administration described the applications as illegal, without specifying the offenses committed by Tripadvisor or other applications, most of which come 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, have not responded to requests for comment.

In China, an examination of the Apple app store highlights the delicate balance that the Cupertino, California-based company must achieve as it works to reach Chinese consumers while navigating official applications.

Earlier this month, Apple told developers in a note that premium games and those with in-app purchases had until Dec. 31 to show proof of a government license.

“Only a small portion of these games will actually be able to obtain a license, as far as we know,” said Rich Bishop, chief executive of ChinaInApp, which works with Western companies to introduce their applications in China.

Trade tensions between China, the United States and other countries have made it more difficult to obtain such licenses, he said.

Apple had 272,000 games in the China App Store last year, according to Sensor Tower, a company that tracks global app activity. By 2020, it has found at least 94,000 removals from the Chinese store, far exceeding the 25,000 gaming apps removed last year.

While the full expansion of the software purge remains unclear, revenue growth from games at Apple’s China store seems to have slowed, even as the segment has picked up pace globally. Sensor Tower estimates that gaming revenue in China this year through November rose 14 percent to $ 13 billion. This compares with a 21% increase in China over the same period in 2019 and a 26% overall gain this year.

The Apple app store has caught fire in various parts of the world. It faces accusations from rivals of anti-competitive behavior – which Apple has challenged – and regulatory control in the US and Europe.

“This veil of secrecy around why it removes this information is what makes it even more worrying.”

– Katie Paul, from the Campaign for Responsibility

Critics have questioned Apple’s decision to comply with some of China’s demands, saying they are contrary to chief executive Tim Cook’s stated desire to uphold freedom of expression, privacy and human rights.

New research from Campaign for Accountability, an advocacy group in Washington, DC, has identified more than 3,000 applications that are not in the China App Store but appear in other countries. The group, whose main supporter is David Magerman, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations and Craig Newmark Philanthropies, has campaigned against big tech companies like Google and Apple.

Nearly a third of the apps missing from the Chinese Apple store are related to what the advocacy group called “human rights” topics, such as Tibetan Buddhism, Hong Kong protests and gay or transgender rights or themes, while 5% were busy with pornography or gambling. Another big piece was the games.

“If it comes under political pressure, the company should explain why and what it would lose if it didn’t,” said Katie Paul, the campaign’s director of technical transparency. “This veil of secrecy around why it removes this information is what makes it even more worrying.”

She acknowledged that the difference between Apple’s offerings in China could come in part from the fact that developers are censored, knowing their chances of approval in the country.

Apple faces reprimands from two sides: from the Chinese state media for not doing enough to filter out banned content and complaints from outside mainland China that it is bowing to state censorship. The company said it complies with local laws.

In a statement Monday, Apple reiterated that its app stores are subject to local rules and sometimes requests to remove certain apps.

“Apple studies these requests carefully whenever we receive and challenge them and we do not agree with them,” a company spokesman said. “Although the final decisions are sometimes against our wishes, we believe that our customers are best served when we stay in the country, giving them access to products that promote self-expression with world-class privacy protections.”

Apple, as well as Google, have removed applications associated with anti-government protests in Hong Kong, including a crowdsourced mapping service that tracked police activity. People’s Daily, run by the Chinese Communist Party, called the application “toxic software.”

Apple said the map application violated local guidelines and laws, and Mr. Cook defended the company’s actions in a note to staff, noting the difficulties involved. “National and international debates will survive us all and, although important, they do not govern the facts,” he wrote. “We believe this decision best protects our users.”

In the latest disclosure reports, Apple said it received 103 requests from Chinese authorities last year to remove 399 applications due to legal violations, mostly related to pornography and illegal content. Apple said it has met most of those requests, tearing down 381 applications. In addition, Apple said in response to government requests that it removed 129 applications at that time in China for so-called platform violations, such as illegal gambling.

Write to Tim Higgins to [email protected]

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