Critics Say Apple Keeps Its App Store Closed to Aid Chinese Censorship

An Apple iPhone / Getty Images
May 24, 2021

Apple is resisting pressure to let iPhone users install third-party apps, a move critics say is the tech giant's latest attempt to cater to the Chinese Communist Party.

Users of Apple products can only download apps from Apple's App Store. That closed system also allows Apple to determine which apps are allowed on the platform. State and federal lawmakers have pushed Apple to allow downloads from outside the App Store in order to increase competition, but other researchers warn the closed system also benefits the authoritarian Chinese government.

Zach Graves, head of policy at the Lincoln Network, told the Washington Free Beacon that Apple's closed system "amplifies the leverage China has to bully Apple to censor or surveil dissidents." He said Apple's system is a "plug-and-play choke point for control by authoritarian regimes like the [People's Republic of China]," which makes it easy for the Chinese government to exert pressure on Apple.

Apple maintains a good relationship with China, a major consumer market that also houses much of the company's supply chain. Apple frequently cooperates with the CCP, storing user data with a state-owned firm and censoring tens of thousands of apps before they reach the App Store, according to a recent New York Times investigation. It also works with multiple Chinese companies that use Uyghur slave labor to make parts for the iPhone, according to the Information.

Stewart Baker, former general counsel of the National Security Agency, told the Free Beacon that the system served as "one neck to throttle" for the CCP.

Apple aggressively lobbied against bills introduced by state legislators in Arizona and Minnesota that would break the company's lock on content on Apple products. In Arizona, Apple critics claimed the company hired the Arizona governor's former chief of staff to broker a backroom deal that shut down the bill. According to Arizona state representative Regina Cobb (R.), Apple hired "almost every lobbyist in town." Apple also successfully lobbied against a similar bill in North Dakota. At the federal level, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) called for the Justice Department to more closely investigate the App Store in a recent Senate hearing on the topic.

Apple benefits financially from its closed system, taking a 30 percent cut of most payments within apps. The company says those fees are necessary to maintain the security of the Apple ecosystem, of which the App Store is an integral part. Apple chief compliance officer Kyle Andeer told the Senate Judiciary Committee in April that the company's oversight of available apps protects users from malware.

But Google's popular operating system, Android, allows apps outside its application store and is widely considered secure. Researchers said opening Apple's system would not constitute a major security risk. Baker told the Free Beacon that closed systems "are by no means a guarantee of security." Graves put it in starker terms: "The narrative that closed systems are necessary for security and privacy is simply false."

If anything, Apple's closed system could put users around the world at risk.

"This isn't just about Chinese users," said Cory Doctorow, special adviser to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It's about users in America who communicate with Chinese users who are compromised by this." Doctorow told the Free Beacon that if Chinese users under surveillance have conversations with American friends or family over iPhone apps, those American users could be exposed.

Baker said that Apple's defense of its App Store is the type of argument frequently employed by major tech companies. "Apple has become an intermediary who can say, 'You should just pay us because we want the money, and we can make you hurt if you don't,'" he said. "I think every Silicon Valley company is subject to some version of this argument."

Published under: Apple