Apple is getting ready to remove thousands more video games from its App Store in China due to pressure from the Chinese government, reports the Wall Street Journal. The company had previously warned Chinese video game developers that premium gaming apps were at risk of removal from the App Store, but the Chinese government is now cracking down even more on games that lack a required license—or any app that it deems illegal.
According to a memo obtained by the WSJ, developers have until Dec. 31 to provide Apple with proof of their government-issued license or else their games and other apps will be removed from the App Store. But Rich Bishop, chief executive of ChinaInApp, told the WSJ that very few developers will actually be able to get the license they need from the government to keep their games in the App Store.
This regulatory policy, first introduced in 2016, was allegedly born from concerns over gaming addiction and offensive content, but until now many iOS developers have been able to get around the compulsory license law because of a loophole in Apple’s App Store policies—a loophole that Apple is now closing, judging by this upcoming purge. It’s unclear exactly what this loophole entailed.
But it’s not just games that Apple has been removing, and likely will continue to remove. A Hong Kong mapping app was removed from the App Store during the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests last fall after the Chinese state media said it endangered law enforcement officers. Google also removed the same app at around the same time. Plague Inc., a global pandemic-themed simulation game, was removed too. PUBG was banned in 2019. Even Tripadvisor might not be safe from Chinese censors. The travel app is one of more than 100 apps that China has told Apple to remove without citing a reason.
In 2019, China’s State Administration of Press and Publication (SAPP) unveiled its app approval guidelines, which prohibited anything that violates or threatens China’s constitution, national security, or political climate; games that promote racism or religious cults; and obscene content featuring drug use, extreme violence, or gambling, reported Business Insider.
After pressure from shareholders over its willingness to comply with Chinese censors, Apple published a document in September about its commitment to human rights. However, as the Financial Times pointed out at the time of the document’s publication, there’s no specific reference to China, or what should happen when “China, the world’s largest smartphone market, asks it to ban apps that help users evade censorship and surveillance.”
But the document does say:
Hand in hand with the privacy of our users is our commitment to freedom of information and expression. Our products help our customers communicate, learn, express their creativity, and exercise their ingenuity. We believe in the critical importance of an open society in which information flows freely, and we’re convinced the best way we can continue to promote openness is to remain engaged, even where we may disagree with a country’s laws.
In 2020 alone, Apple has removed 94,000 apps from its China App Store, compared to 25,000 games removed last year, according to Sensor Tower. In July, 2,500 mobile games were removed before a July 31 deadline to obtain a license. It’s not clear whether these games were removed by the developers or by Apple, but Sensor Tower notes that 80% of those apps had less than 10,000 downloads in China since Jan. 1, 2012.