I have written about app stores at length before but it is worth reiterating a few points given the recent news about Apple removing access to the Hkmap.live app (which helps people track police activity) and Google removing access to The Revolution of Our Times (a protest game).
First, Apple’s (and Google’s) explanations don’t pass the smell test. These apps were taken down because the Chinese government wanted them taken down. Whether they violated any specific “law” is immaterial; in an authoritarian society power need not be exercised through formal means. But it is power nonetheless. What is most disheartening is that the companies are playing along and pretending like these apps violate their policies. (It would be even more disheartening if they actually believed it, but motivated reasoning can lead people to weird places.)
That said I don’t look for private companies to be heroes of civil disobedience–to set up shop in countries around the world, break local laws (however unjust they may be), and have their employees arrested. I look to them to avoid putting themselves in situations where civil disobedience might be called for. They should avoid doing business or creating technological systems in ways that can compel them to take unethical actions. Apple in particular has put itself in quite a vulnerable position with regard to China. Unless and until it is not dependent on the good graces of an authoritarian regime to manufacture its products maybe there is little it can do. It may also simply have to forgo the Chinese retail market as well. I will leave those points to others to consider.
But there are some steps it can take with respect to its app store.
One option of course would be to simply outsource the operation of its Chinese App Store to a local company. I mention this only because Apple has already done this with iCloud storage in China. This approach would be far from ideal as it would not lead to any greater ability of its users to access the content and apps of their choice. But it would be a recognition of reality, at least. And that reality is that Apple doesn’t make the final call in China as to what apps are available; Chinese political officials do.
A better approach would be to lessen the importance of the App Store altogether. If users had other ways to install apps on their iPhones then it wouldn’t matter nearly as much if the App Store was censorious and restrictive, just like if one supermarket doesn’t stock your favorite brand of seltzer you can just buy it somewhere else.
This doesn’t have to come at the expense of security. As on the Mac, apps can still be signed by developers and notarized by Apple (or, even better, a number of trusted entities). This would allow harmful apps to be revoked and still provide protection against known attacks. Non-App Store apps could live in stricter sandboxes than App Store apps, such that they can’t get access to sensitive user data or device sensors.
Apple has resisted opening up iOS devices to apps from non-App Store sources from the beginning. But it also styles itself as a champion of privacy, equality, and human rights. If it has to make a choice between software distribution business models and human rights I would hope it decides to be more flexible on its business model. If even with actions such as these it finds itself subject to even more demands from the Chinese state to hinder the rights of Chinese and global users to free expression and communication, it could be, as many people have suggested, that its only ethical choice is to exit that country altogether. There is no moral or utilitarian calculus that justifies active cooperation in the suppression of democracy and human rights.