In an about-face, Apple removes Hong Kong protest map app following China backlash

Iris Deng

Apple on Thursday removed from its App Store a Hong Kong location map app that tracks protests activities following a backlash from China, in an about-face after it first gave approval to the app last week.

Despite those actions, users can still access the web version of HKmap.live on their smartphones by opening its webpage on their browser. The app also remains available on Google Play for Android smartphone users.

Apple said the HKmap.live app, which crowdsources locations of police and anti-government protesters in the city, violated its rules as it was used to target and ambush police, victimise residents and threaten public safety.

“We have learned that an app, HKmap.live, has been used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong,” Apple said in a statement. “This app violates our guidelines and local laws, and we have removed it from the App Store.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook defends decision to remove Hong Kong maps app in memo to staff

Following Apple’s move, Google on Thursday removed from its own online marketplace a mobile game that let people play as a Hong Kong protester, saying it violated a policy against cashing in on conflicts.

The decision to yank The Revolution of Our Times game from Google’s Play Store did not result from any takedown requests by police or any other party outside the California-based company, according to Google.

“We have a longstanding policy prohibiting developers from capitalising on sensitive events such as attempting to make money from serious ongoing conflicts or tragedies through a game,” Google said in response to an AFP inquiry.

“After careful review, we found this app to be violating that particular policy and suspended it, as we have done with similar attempts to profit from other high-profile events such as earthquakes, crises, suicides and conflicts.”

Apple’s China App Store pulls US news app that covered Hong Kong protests

In mainland China, an app produced by an American media company that has given extensive coverage to the protests in Hong Kong has been removed from Apple’s domestic App Store for providing “illegal content” in the country.

Zach Seward, chief executive of Quartz, which reports on the global economy, said in an interview with technology news website TheVerge.com that his company was being targeted not only because of its reports about the pro-democracy protests but also its articles on how to use virtual private networks to bypass China’s strict controls on internet access.

Quartz’s website – like those of many media and technology firms, including the South China Morning Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, the BBC, Google and Facebook – is blocked in mainland China.

“We abhor this kind of government censorship of the internet and have great coverage of how to get around such bans around the world,” Seward said in a statement.

Apple under fire from China over HKmap.live app that tracks police activity amid Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong has seen months of street demonstrations and increasing violence triggered by the government’s now-abandoned extradition bill. Clashes between riot police and protesters have led to accusations of police brutality, with radicals looting, trashing and burning shops, bank outlets and MTR stations.

The developer of the HKmap.live, who declined to reveal their identity over personal safety concerns, confirmed on Twitter and its official channel in Telegram, a popular messaging app used by protesters, that the app had been removed by Apple.

In a series of posts on Twitter on Thursday afternoon, the developer said it disagreed with the claim by Apple and Hong Kong Police that the app endangered law enforcement and residents. “We once believed the App rejection [was] simply a bureaucratic f up but now it is clearly a political decision to suppress freedom and human rights in Hong Kong,” the developer said.

Apple first approved the HKmap.live app on October 4, according to the developer, and the app immediately shot to the top of the charts for the travel category in the iOS App Store in Hong Kong.

HKmap.live attracted both positive and negative reviews, with one user calling it “life-saving technology” while another said it supported lawbreaking and put “citizens in danger”.

Screenshots of the HKmap.live app. Photo: SCMP

Protesters who joined a demonstration in Tsim Sha Tsui on Thursday evening accused Apple of bowing to pressure from Beijing for its decision to remove the HKmap.live app.

“Apple should not let politics affect its business or be scared of Beijing,” said a protester who identified himself as Nathan. He added, however, that Apple’s action will not affect his decision to buy the company’s products in future. He indicated that iPhones are still safer to use than other smartphones, such as those from Huawei Technologies.

For Taiwanese Carrie Tung, Apple’s action might make her hesitant to buy any of the company’s devices in future.

“I can’t believe such a big American company like Apple removed the app under pressure from Beijing,” Tung said. “The US is supposed to represent values like freedom. If they can do this, what other unreasonable decisions will they make in the future?”

Tung said she came to join the protests in Hong Kong for the seventh time and that she previously downloaded the HKmap.live app to learn the whereabouts of the police.

A 26-year-old male protester who declined to be named derided Apple for being influenced by the Chinese government. “If they say the application helps people track down the police and harm them, it is only a hypothesis, there is no evidence,” he said.

Apple’s changes for China

Earlier this week, Chinese state-owned media outlet People’s Daily accused Apple of protecting “rioters” in Hong Kong and enabling illegal behaviour.

“By allowing its platform to clear the way for an app that incites illegal behaviour, [does Apple] not worry about damaging its reputation and hurting the feelings of consumers?” People’s Daily commentary said.

Before the initial approval, Apple said it had turned down the developer’s application to list HKmap.live on its App Store because it contained “content – or facilitates, enables and encourages an activity – that is not legal” and “allowed users to evade law enforcement”, according to the developer, who cited Apple’s October 2 rejection notice in a tweet last week.

The developer previously told the Post that there is “no evidence that HKmap.live is illegal” and stated that they had never received any legal complaints.

The Greater China region – covering mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan – is one of Apple’s major markets. The Cupertino, California-based company derived US$9.61 billion in sales from the region in the April-to-June period, down 4 per cent from a year earlier.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Li Tao, Zen Soo, Linda Lew and Sum Lok-kei

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