The group says Apple’s transparency reports aren’t very transparent

A campaign group has criticized Apple’s twice-yearly transparency reports, saying that in a very important sense they are not very transparent.

One section of the report covers removal requests in the App Store, and Apple accuses Apple of deliberately hiding information about apps you remove…

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Apple publishes transparency reports twice a year. These details the actions it took in response to government and private data requests, as well as the apps it removed from the App Store in response to removal requests.

Apple provides information regarding requests from government authorities to remove apps from the App Store based on alleged/suspected violations of local law. Examples of such requests are when law enforcement or regulatory agencies suspect that the app may be illegal or relate to/contain illegal content. Apple complies with these requests to the extent we are legally required to do so.

The latest report revealed that the majority of app removal requests were received from China, and that Apple removed all the apps involved.

Apple reported that it received 39 legal infringement removal requests covering 206 requests. China accounted for 26 of those applications covering 90 applications, followed by India which made six applications covering 102 applications. Apple has removed all 206 required apps.

Campaign group says Apple’s transparency reports aren’t actually transparent

The accusation was made by GreatFire, a campaign group whose mission is to “monitor and challenge Internet censorship in China”. The group has published its own report, “Taken Down: A Look in Apple’s Transparency Reports”.

Apple has carefully designed its transparency reports to hide as much information as possible about app removals from the 175 app stores it operates around the world.

By analyzing the four transparency reports covering “Global Government App Store removal requests” from January 2019 through December 2020, Apple’s oversight revealed dozens of missing data, inconsistencies and contradictory information presented in the most deceptive way, making it impossible for the public to gain a clear understanding of the operations Remove Apple’s government-led proactive apps from its app stores. By submitting such reports as its effort to be transparent to the public, Apple deceives its users and the public about the truth of the removal policy, both in terms of its true nature and scope.

The AppleCensorship report states that despite publishing so-called “transparency” reports; Apple still operates in the most opaque way, not accountable for the decisions it makes about certain content, information and tools not available in the App Store.

The group says that while Apple does provide statistics, it fails to provide any information that might be needed to assess the reasonableness of app removals.

  • There is no information about the apps being removed, their category, the type of content and functionality they offer, and the app stores they were in before they were removed.
  • There is no information on the government agencies that issued the removal requests, the dates of the requests, the legal basis for them, and the reasons these authorities invoked for the app removals.
  • Apple has used only 10 vague, frequently phrased reasons to describe the reasons for removing apps: “apps running without government license,” “illegal gambling,” and “illegal content” account for 32 of the 41 brief explanations Apple gave.

GreatFire says this makes it impossible to know who has been targeted or affected by the removals.

Since no information is provided on which apps are being removed, it is impossible to know if certain groups of users (such as human rights activists, journalists, ethnic minorities, or vulnerable communities like LGBTQ+) have been targeted by this removal.

Additionally, she says, governments often make removal requests by flagging apps as violating App Store policies — avoiding the need to cite a legal basis to remove them.

Platform Policy Removal Requests (PPVTR) result in much more removals than Legal Violation Removal Requests (LVTR).

Over a two-year period, 869 applications after LVTRs were removed resulting in 948 removals worldwide, while the removal of 191 applications for PPVTRs resulted in 29,605 removals worldwide. In other words, 96.90% of all removals were made according to Apple’s own decisions. Only 3.10% of all removals were made due to Apple’s legal obligation to comply with local laws.

The group says that Apple should provide more information, including a list of apps that were removed, and the laws that the apps allegedly violated.

We’ve reached out to Apple for comment, and will update with any response.

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