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Apple pulls banned content from Chinese App Store

Playing nice or rolling over?

Apple is under fire again in China after removing an application from its local App Store featuring illegal content, in what could be the start of more rigorous approach to self-censorship following Cupertino’s recent run-in with the authorities.

Hao Peiqiang, developer of bookstore app jingdian shucheng told the FT his application was targeted by the fruity tech giant because it offers access to three books by Wang Lixiong – a controversial author and activist whose content is largely banned in China.

The letter sent to him on Thursday from Apple’s App Review team apparently did not specify exactly which books had landed the app in hot water, only stating the reason for removal was that it: “includes content that is illegal in China”.

Apple has always abided - on paper at least – by local laws, as all foreign firms operating in China must do. In fact, Section 22 of the App Store Review Guidelines(registered devs only) published in 2010 states the following:

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.

However, Hao raised question marks over the timing of the removal notice as his app had been allowed to function unhindered in China for the past two months.

The inference here is that Cupertino is taking its obligations to police app content in China more seriously now following the very high profile attacks on its operations in the country over the past fortnight, led by state-run media.

That elicited a grovelling apology from CEO Tim Cook this week, no doubt mindful of the strategic importance of a market he’s projecting to be Apple’s biggest in time.

It could also be a well-timed move to head off any heavy-handed regulation by the authorities.

Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Chinese media analyst Danwei, wrote in ChinaFile this week that, “iTunes is the greatest Trojan horse of foreign content that any foreign media or tech company has managed to sneak into the People’s Republic without serious scrutiny”.

It’s certainly an area the government has its eye on, having already floated plans to strengthen regulations which include forcing mobile app store owners to go through stringent registration and licensing procedures.

Other details are vague at the moment but real name registration requirements for developers and some form of mandatory content filtering are a distinct possibility.

At present, Apple uses HTTPS for iTunes downloads and searches in China, effectively enabling it to bypass the Great Firewall.

Apple couldn't immediately be reached for comment. ®

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