Apple’s recent decision to require app developers to obtain Chinese government licensing before their apps can be available in the Chinese App Store is set to close a longstanding loophole in Beijing’s censorship efforts. While this move aligns with China’s strict censorship laws, it is poised to complicate the lives of both users and developers.
For years, tech-savvy users in China have used iPhones to access blocked platforms such as Instagram and YouTube via the Chinese iOS store. They accomplished this by using VPNs to bypass China’s “Great Firewall” and access content from these apps. However, the availability of VPNs in China has been progressively restricted, making it more challenging for users like Alex to maintain access to a diverse range of views and information provided by foreign apps.
This practice has seen many banned foreign apps amass millions of downloads in the mainland Chinese iOS Store.
During the widespread protests against pandemic restrictions in China last year, platforms like X and Telegram briefly emerged as the most popular apps in the country. In 2023, Google Chrome has taken the lead in downloads, with about 7 million, while Instagram and X have each accumulated 5 million downloads, according to data from Sensor Tower, an app market intelligence provider.
However, this virtual window for iPhone users in China may soon be closed.
In response to China’s tightening app regulations last year, Apple now requests that app developers targeting mainland users demonstrate proof of licensing from local internet regulators. It’s the latest step by the US tech giant to ensure compliance with censorship laws in one of its most lucrative markets.
A key aspect of Apple’s new policy is the requirement for apps to acquire an Internet Information Provider (ICP) license from Chinese regulators. This effectively mandates that all apps use a mainland domain and be hosted by a local entity, as noted by Chinese app developers familiar with the process.
The repercussions of this change are not limited to censored foreign apps but also extend to apps targeting Chinese users without local operations. Small, independent developers are likely to face the most significant challenges.
However, it’s worth noting that some companies have struggled with this approach. For instance, LinkedIn created a Chinese-compliant version of its app with strict content filters in 2021 but abandoned the effort earlier this year. Other developers have sought partnerships with local publishers offering app hosting services in China for a fee.
Apple had previously resisted adopting stricter app development policies imposed by local competitors in China. It occasionally complied with specific requests from Chinese regulators to remove controversial apps.
However, last year, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) issued updated app provider policies, requiring app distribution platforms to submit specific information for registration and urging app stores to police their products actively and reject apps containing “illegal or bad information.”
Following these changes, Apple began mandating ICP licenses from app developers, which could result in fewer apps available in China. Currently, the Chinese Apple App Store offers the most app choices among all platforms in the country.
The tighter policy is expected to pose a more significant barrier, making it less likely for users to discover these apps in the first place.