A total of 53 Virtual Private Network (VPN) applications have become unavailable in Apple’s Hong Kong App Store since Beijing imposed a national security law (NSL) on the city in June 2020, a report by AppleCensorship has revealed.

The digital freedom watchdog urged the US tech giant to clearly state how it would respond if Hong Kong or Beijing requested that apps be taken down.

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An Apple Store at the IFC shopping mall in Central. File photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

In a report released on Thursday entitled “Apps at Risk: Apple’s censorship and compromises in Hong Kong,” AppleCensorship found that more apps were unavailable in Hong Kong’s than in most of the 173 App Stores it monitored.

According to AppleCensorship’s latest statistics from last month, 2,370 or 16 per cent of the 14,782 apps it tested were unavailable in Hong Kong’s App Store.

The watchdog said only stores in Russia and China had more unavailable apps than their Hong Kong counterpart – Russia had 2,754 and China had 10,837.

VPN. File photo: Kevin Paster, via Pexels.

The report said that “a considerable number of VPN apps seem to have been removed
from Hong Kong’s App Store following the adoption of the NSL,” putting the number at 53. Many other VPN apps, including the most popular ones, remain in the Hong Kong App Store.

VPNs may be used as to circumvent online censorship, or enhance a user’s privacy, by disguising their web traffic.

AppleCensorship said these VPNs ensure Hongkongers will always have a looking glass into content that may get removed, but added that “if more VPN apps are removed from Hong Kong, or if Beijing requests that Apple enforce a systematic categorical ban on VPNs, as it currently does in China, that looking glass could disappear quickly.”

Apart from VPN providers, the watchdog also found that some media apps have become unavailable in Hong Kong’s App Store, including TV Martí +, developed by the United States Agency for Global Media, and news aggregator NewsBreak: Local News.

The report also cited Apple’s past acts of “censorship,” which included the removal of a map application used by pro-democracy protesters for “endangering police” in 2019 and its refusal to engrave products with sensitive words in Hong Kong and China.

The online version of the HKmap.live, which iOS app version was removed by Apple in 2019. File photo: Screenshot.

In light of its findings, AppleCensorship called for the US tech giant to declare publicly whether it would resist any takedown requests from Beijing or Hong Kong government agencies.

It said Apple should be transparent when such requests were made and allow the installation of third-party applications “in order to make censorship requests a less efficient tool for the authorities.”

The company was also urged to adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and avoid “causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts” in Hong Kong.

Benjamin Ismail, the project director of Apple Censorship, told HKFP he thought it was still possible for the public or organisations to pressure Apple into resisting app removal requests from Hong Kong and Beijing.

“For years we have been exposing Apple, denouncing Apple’s actions after censorship happened. In this case some has already started, but there’s still more to prevent and we are trying to prevent that,” Ismail said.

“The main issue, as we put in the report, is we don’t know how Apple is going to react if the authorities increase censorship in the future.”

Apple did not respond to HKFP’s request for comment.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.