Before June each year, content and media platforms in China anxiously anticipate a new round of censorship as the government tightens access to information in the lead-up to the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Pocket Casts, which was acquired by a group of American public radio companies in 2018, tweeted that it "has been removed from the Chinese App Store by Apple, at the request of the Cyberspace Administration of China," the country's internet watchdog.
When Pocket Casts asked for clarification, Apple's app review team told the podcast firm to contact the CAC directly, an email seen by TechCrunch showed.
"We will most likely contact them to find out more, though we weren't given that option to stop the app from being removed, only as a potential solution to have it re-instated. The very small amount of warning we were given between there being a problem, and our app being completely removed from the Chinese app store was quite alarming," a spokesperson for Pocket Casts told TechCrunch.
"We assumed that what they'd want us to remove are specific podcasts, and possible some of the Black Lives Matter content we'd posted."
Castro Podcasts, bought by Dribbble owner Tiny in 2018, said in a tweet that while it wasn't given specifics about its removal in China, the incident might have been caused by its "support of the protests."
We think it might have been our support of the protests in the Discover tab. We were not given specifics.
— Castro Podcasts (@CastroPodcasts) June 7, 2020
Apple cannot be immediately reached for comment.
The losses are reminiscent of Apple's crackdown on Chinese-language podcasts last year around this time. For many independent podcast creators in China, that was the beginning of the end to free expression. While domestic podcast platforms play by Beijing's rules to self-censor, cracks have long remained on international platforms such as Apple Podcast.
The Apple app, which functions as RSS feeds rather than a hosting service, has unnerved the authority for its relatively hands-off approach toward audio content. That's a contrast to its Chinese counterparts, which screen content thoroughly before publishing. While Apple only distributes content, its Chinese rivals "combine content hosting, content distribution, and user listening as a result of China's regulations and years of commercial development," observed (in Chinese) Chinese podcasting firm JustPod in a blog post.
Most foreign podcasts had long been inaccessible on Apple within China. When the giant began weeding out Chinese shows that lacked government-approved hosting partners that moderated content, many saw it as Apple's nod to censorship masked as a law-abiding move.
The company's shareholders have protested, with 40% of the group (paywalled) casting support for a proposal that would require Apple to be more transparent on how it responds to government demands for censorship.
Pocket Casts and Castro Podcasts are two censorship-free alternatives that many Chinese podcast creators had picked since last year's purge within Apple Podcast. Pocket Casts said China is now its 7th largest market with rapid growth. These options are now gone.
Recent events suggest that Apple may be increasingly caving to Beijing's pressure to stay in the market. In February, the firm removed the smash-hit Plague Inc., which was told it included “content that is illegal in China as determined by the CAC,” the same government agency that dropped Pocket Casts. In 2017, Apple stirred up a huge controversy when it pulled hundreds of VPNs that would help mainland users access otherwise blocked websites.