Apple rejects Hong Kong protest map app
HKmap.live is crowdsourced like Waze, allowing people to mark the location of protests, tear gas... and the police
Tear gas, protests and closed subway stations are just some of the things Hong Kong residents have learned to live with during the last four months. And if you’re one of the people trying to avoid the trouble, don’t worry -- there’s an app for that.
Well, unless you have an iPhone.
Apple allegedly rejected a crowdsourced protest map app from the App Store, saying the tool contains illegal content.
The developers of the HKmap.live app provided us with a notice that they said came from Apple. In it, the company says HKmap.live was rejected because it helps people evade law enforcement.
As the protests have unfolded over the last 18 weeks, getting around Hong Kong has become more complicated. Streets can quickly become impassable, whether they’re flooded by protesters or closed off by police, and the city’s subway -- once famed for efficiency -- often sees stations closed and even whole lines stopped.
The real-time map has become an invaluable tool for people looking to find their way around the trouble. But it’s also useful for protesters, contributing to their “be like water” tactics to evade the police, dispersing and popping up again at different locations.
HKmap.live relies on crowdsourced information, like Google’s Waze. People can mark the map with different emoji to represent different types of situations, allowing people to be aware of hazards ahead -- or even to coordinate movement among the leaderless protests, giving those marching a place to aim for.
The fact that this map was created by protesters is made clear when you see the emoji it uses.
A worker in a hardhat represents protesters; appropriate given that many don yellow helmets as protection. Similarly, red and black flags represent police warnings; again, a match for reality, where police often raise colored flags to indicate their intentions.
But the police themselves have less flattering emoji: A dog is used to represent regular police units, while a dinosaur represents the special police tactical squad. (This one does have a real-world connection, because they're also known as Raptors.)
The developer says the app was initially submitted for review on September 21, but was rejected multiple times for a number of reasons. The final notice, however, was much clearer: It said it was rejected because the app allowed users to avoid the police.
According to the notice from Apple provided to us by the map’s developer, HKmap.live “contains content -- or facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity -- that is not legal in all of the locations where the app is available. Specifically, the app allowed users to evade law enforcement.”
If the app was rejected for allowing people to avoid the police, it’s strange given that it’s one of the key features of Waze, which is available in Hong Kong. In fact, the feature is listed prominently in the first screenshot in Waze’s entry in the iOS App Store: “Avoid traffic, police, and accidents.”
A look at the rules published on the App Store Review Guidelines for developers shows that Apple only has regulations covering police checkpoints for drunk drivers. It does not appear to have anything covering regular police checkpoints. We reached out to Apple, but have yet to hear back.
We also reached out to the police to clarify whether an app that allows you to evade law enforcement is, as Apple seems to suggest, not legal. A spokesman was not able to provide a comment at this time. We'll update the story if we hear back from either Apple or the police.
Apple has faced scrutiny over its cooperation with the Chinese government in the past, including its willingness to indulge censorship requests. The US tech giant has removed censorship circumvention tools like VPNs from China’s App Store along with foreign news apps. Even stranger, Apple’s iMessage app doesn’t give results if you search for “Chinese” GIFs.
But the creators of HKmap.live don’t suspect anything nefarious. They told us that they believe the takedown is a matter of bureaucracy, not a political stance.
“Although the whole thing is stupid, this is still what I think is happening,” they said.
Apple’s rejection doesn’t mean smartphone users are out of luck. The map is still accessible in a browser, and it’s also available as an Android app.
Hong Kong’s protests aren’t short of smartphone-based tools. Telegram is a primary means of communication among protesters, while some have turned to Apple’s AirDrop to spread their message.