Over the course of a year, Apple took down 805 apps in mainland China by its own account. In Apple’s latest transparency report accounting for the first half of 2019, the iPhone maker said it removed 288 apps from China’s iOS App Store for both legal and policy violations.

The Apple Transparency Report goes out twice a year and details requests received from government agencies and private parties worldwide. The report lists government requests to access information on accounts and devices, but the last two reports also include the number of apps Apple removed that period. 

When it comes to why those apps are removed, though, Apple is tight-lipped.

The reports cite two reasons for app removals: Platform violations, which covers gambling apps (gambling is illegal in China), and legal violations, which according to Apple usually means apps with pornography (also illegal in China) and other illegal content. 

“Apple's transparency report really ends up creating more questions than providing answers,” said Charlie Smith, the pseudonym of the co-founder of GreatFire, a website that tracks China’s online censorship system. 

China’s app stores do have their fair share of shady apps. But according to Smith, Apple doesn’t provide any evidence that removed apps are related to porn or gambling.

Apple did not respond to requests for comment.

The company only started publicizing app removals from government requests from July 2018, with 517 apps being removed in China through December that year. The decision came almost a year after Apple suddenly purged more than 600 VPN apps from China’s App Store. VPNs (virtual private networks) are tools used to keep identities hidden and jump over the Great Firewall. But in 2017, the Chinese government decided that VPNs need permission to operate legally in the country. Apple said it had to follow the country’s rules.

Since then, two reports with app removal numbers have been published, showing Apple removing more apps for China than any other country. The United Arab Emirates requested more apps be removed in the first half of 2019, but Apple reported that it didn’t remove any of them.

GreatFire paints a different picture of the apps taken down in China than Apple. (Picture: Shutterstock)

The total number of apps missing from the App Store because of government censorship is hard to know. GreatFire has used its tool applecensorship.com to identify 2,678 apps that aren’t available inside the mainland China App Store. But this number doesn’t paint the full picture.

Records of missing apps are only generated when people search for them on the website. And there’s no information on whether apps were taken down because of a government request, a decision from Apple or the app makers’ choice. Many of the apps recorded were never listed on the mainland China App Store.

But the list does provide some insight, like the fact that the 149 unavailable news apps is more than in any other country.

“We know that app store removals are happening more often in China,” said GreatFire’s Karen Reilly. “We know that many of these apps are news sources. We know that many of these apps are VPNs and other software that everyday people use to protect their privacy.”

Apple’s reports are published with a six-month delay, meaning we still don’t have the official tally for the last half of 2019. But we at least know of one prominent news app banished from China’s App Store during that time. In October, the US-based media outlet Quartz joined the ranks of foreign media apps blocked in China, including The New York Times. The removal happened in the midst of Hong Kong’s anti-government protests, while censors in mainland China were busy deleting news that went against official propaganda.

However, the biggest uproar over an app takedown from Apple wasn’t from the mainland China App Store -- it was from the Hong Kong store. In October last year, Apple removed a map app that tracks the movements of protesters and police in Hong Kong after Chinese state media published a commentary saying that the app “incites illegal behavior.” CEO Tim Cook said that the decision wasn’t the result of demands from Chinese authorities.

Apple’s policies toward app removals might change in the future. In September, campaign group SumofUs called on Apple to disclose certain policies related to human rights. The company’s shareholders are set to vote on whether Apple should change its policies by making a commitment to respect freedom of expression.