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New Report Unveils App Censorship in China’s Apple App Store Amid Recent Developments

2024-06-20 11:54

Human rights

June 20, 2024

New Report Unveils App Censorship in China’s Apple App Store Amid Recent Developments

GreatFire’s (now part of The App Censorship Project), in collaboration with ARTICLE 19 ASIA, is releasing a comprehensive report titled Isolation by Design: Censorship in Apple’s App Store in China and Human Rights Implications.” This report meticulously examines the intricate landscape of app censorship within China’s Apple App Store, highlighting significant patterns of app removals and the broader human rights concerns arising from these practices.

The full report can be accessed here. Detailed data supporting the report’s findings can be found here, here, and here.

Key Findings:

The Isolation of Chinese Mobile Users:

  • Among the 100 most downloaded apps worldwide:
    • Only four are also among the most downloaded in China’s App Store, all of which are Chinese.
    • 66 were found unavailable to Chinese iOS users.
    • In contrast, only 8 apps were unavailable in the U.S. App Store.
  • This demonstrates a significant digital isolation of Chinese users compared to their global counterparts.

Unavailable Apps in China:

  • As of March 20, 2023, the App Store Monitor has recorded 11,026 unavailable apps in China’s App Store.
  • China’s ratio of unavailability—the number of unavailable apps compared to the total number of apps tested—is the highest of the 175 App Stores run by Apple, at 27.53%. The average ratio of unavailability for other App Stores is around 13%.
  • Categories such as Games, Utilities, Education, Entertainment, and Lifestyle are proportionally represented in the list of unavailable apps in China, aligning with their prevalence in the App Store. However, News, Books, and Social Networking categories are disproportionately unavailable, suggesting targeted censorship.

Sensitive Categories:

  • VPN: Every VPN app tested (240) was unavailable in China, confirming a comprehensive ban to prevent circumvention of the Great Firewall.
    • Noteworthy examples: Lantern VPN, ProtonVPN, ExpressVPN, Nord VPN;
  • Privacy & Digital Security: 29 apps focusing on privacy and digital security were unavailable, potentially impacting members of civil society organizations who need to safeguard their personal information.
    • Noteworthy examples: Signal, ProtonMail, DuckDuckGo;
  • LGBTQ+ & Dating: Out of 67 unavailable LGBTQ+ related apps, most impacted were social networking and dating apps.
    • Noteworthy examples: Hinge, Adam4Adam, weBelong, and Grindr;
  • News, Media & Information: 170 unavailable apps were listed, including Taiwan+, removed from China’s App Store in November 2022. The number of News apps unavailable has consistently grown since the AppleCensorship project began in 2019.
    • Noteworthy examples: NYTimes, BBC News, Reuters;
  • Social Media & Communication: 96 apps, including some of the major platforms. The only few popular apps worldwide, like Twitter and Facebook, that were available are blocked by China’s Great Firewall, making them inoperative without a VPN.
    • Noteworthy examples: Skype, LinkedIn, Viber, Damus, Line;
  • Tibet & Buddhism: 41 apps related to Tibetan culture and Buddhism were unavailable, suggesting meticulous scrutiny by Chinese authorities.
    • Noteworthy examples: Himalaya Lib, MonlamGrandTibetanDictionary;
  • Uyghur: Out of the 72 Uyghur-related apps identified, 12, including those for religious texts, were blocked. Among them were two Book apps housing thousands of Uyghur-language books and audiobooks.
    • Noteworthy examples:RFA Uyghur, Hayatnuri, Awazliq Kitap, UYGHUR MAN
  • Religion: 144 apps related to various religions were unavailable. Various versions of the Bible are inconsistently available, with no specific version targeted more than others.
    • Noteworthy examples: Bible App by Olive Tree, Quran Majeed, TORAH, JW Library

Recent Developments:

Adding to the report’s urgency, recent actions by Apple have intensified the conversation about digital freedom and censorship. As of April 19, 2024, Apple has removed widely-used apps such as WhatsApp and Instagram from its China App Store, citing national security concerns in line with the Chinese government’s stringent regulations. This move highlights an increasing trend of digital isolation for Chinese iOS users, creating even more barriers for foreign journalists and other members of civil society.

Key Recommendations:


  • Improve Transparency: Disclose detailed information about the apps targeted by government takedown requests, the legal basis for app takedowns, details about Apple’s own app review processes, and appeal mechanisms.
  • Strengthen Human Rights Commitments: Ensure users can access unfiltered information. Advocate for digital freedom by challenging blanket bans on VPN apps and other privacy tools.
  • Ensure Genuine Appeal Procedures: Establish transparent and accessible appeal processes for developers to contest app removals and rejections, ensuring fairness and accountability in App Store operations.
  • Implement Sideloading: Allow alternative app distribution channels to mitigate impact on fundamental freedoms and reduce dependency on the App Store.

Government and Lawmakers:

  • Investigate and Regulate: Scrutinize Apple’s practices and enact laws to ensure global digital and human rights standards.

International Community:

  • Promote Human Rights Policies: Advocate for human rights-based guidelines and demand transparency from tech companies.

About The App Censorship Project: is dedicated to monitoring and reporting on app availability and censorship across Apple’s App Stores worldwide. The website is now under the aegis of The App Censorship Project, an initiative that aims to expose censorship in Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store. Collaborating with various human rights organizations, it aims to foster a more open and transparent digital future.

About ARTICLE 19: ARTICLE 19 is an international human rights organization that works to defend and promote freedom of expression and freedom of information worldwide.