Apple Inc. AAPL -0.70% is booting thousands of videogame apps from its platform in China as the government clamps down harder on such content, illustrating the tech giant’s vulnerability to state pressure on its business.
The iPhone maker this month warned Chinese developers that a new wave of paid gaming apps are at risk of removal from its app store, according to a memo viewed by The Wall Street Journal, after the company removed thousands of such apps earlier this year.
The Chinese government four years ago began requiring videogames to be licensed before being released, but developers were able to skirt the requirement in Apple’s app store. Apple hasn’t said why the loophole existed or why the company began closing it this year. Foreign software developers lament the change, citing difficulty securing approval in China for their games.
The app-store purge comes as China has stepped up efforts to police its internet, tightening content controls and censorship, including a demand that Tripadvisor and more than 100 other apps be removed from the Apple store in the country. The Cyberspace Administration of China called the apps illegal without spelling out the offenses Tripadvisor or the other apps, most of which are from Chinese developers, had committed. Tripadvisor declined to comment.
The Cyberspace Administration of China, which regulates cybersecurity, and the National Radio and Television Administration, which approves videogames, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In China, the scrutiny of Apple’s app store highlights the delicate balance the Cupertino, Calif.-based company must strike as it works to reach Chinese consumers while also navigating official demands.
Earlier this month, Apple told developers in a memo that premium games and those with in-app purchases had until Dec. 31 to submit proof of a government license.
“Only a small fraction of these games are actually going to be able to get a license, as far as we can tell,” said Rich Bishop, chief executive of ChinaInApp, which works with Western companies to get their apps into China.
Trade tensions between China and the U.S. and other countries have made it harder to get those licenses, he said.
Apple had 272,000 games in its China App Store last year, according to Sensor Tower, a company that tracks app business globally. For 2020, it has found at least 94,000 removals from the China store, far exceeding the 25,000 game apps taken down last year.
While the full extent of the software purge remains unclear, revenue growth from games in Apple’s China store appears to have slowed even as the segment has picked up its pace globally. Sensor Tower estimates game revenue in China this year through November was up 14% at $13 billion. That compares with a 21% rise in China over the same stretch in 2019 and a 26% gain globally this year.
Apple’s app store has drawn fire in various parts of the world. It is facing accusations by rivals of anticompetitive behavior—which Apple has disputed—and regulatory scrutiny in the U.S. and Europe.
“ ‘This veil of secrecy around why they’re removing this information is what makes it even more concerning.’ ”
Critics have questioned Apple’s decision to comply with some of China’s demands, saying they run counter to Chief Executive Tim Cook’s stated desire to stand for freedom of expression, privacy and human rights.
New research from the Campaign for Accountability, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, identified more than 3,000 apps that aren’t in the China App Store but appear in other countries. The group, whose major backers include David Magerman, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and Craig Newmark Philanthropies, has campaigned against big tech firms such as Google and Apple.
Almost a third of the apps absent from Apple’s China store were related to what the advocacy group deemed “hot button human rights” topics, such as Tibetan Buddhism, protests in Hong Kong and gay or transgender rights or themes, while 5% dealt with pornography or gambling. Another large chunk were games.
“If it’s going to bend to political pressure, the company should explain why and what they would lose if they didn’t do that,” Katie Paul, director of the campaign’s Tech Transparency Project, said. “This veil of secrecy around why they’re removing this information is what makes it even more concerning.”
She acknowledged that the disparity in Apple’s China offerings could stem in part from developers in effect censoring themselves, knowing their chances of approval in the country.
Apple faces reproof from two sides: from Chinese state media for not doing enough to filter banned content, and complaints from outside mainland China that it bends to state censorship. The company has said it was complying with local laws.
In a statement Monday, Apple reiterated that its app stores are subject to local rules and sometimes field requests to remove certain apps.
“Apple studies these requests carefully whenever we receive them, and we contest and disagree with them often,” a company spokesman said. “Though the final decisions sometimes run contrary to our wishes, we believe that our customers are best served when we remain in the country providing them access to products that promote self-expression with world-class privacy protections.”
Apple, as well as Google, removed apps associated with Hong Kong’s antigovernment protests, including a crowdsourced map service that tracked police activity. The People’s Daily newspaper, which is run by the Chinese Communist Party, had called the app “toxic software.”
Apple said the map app violated guidelines and local laws, and Mr. Cook defended the company’s actions in a memo to staff, noting the difficulties involved. “National and international debates will outlive us all, and while important, they do not govern the facts,” he wrote. “We believe this decision best protects our users.”
In its most recent disclosure reports, Apple said it received 103 requests from Chinese authorities last year for the removal of 399 apps because of legal violations, the majority of which were related to pornography and illegal content. Apple said it honored most of those requests, pulling down 381 apps. In addition, Apple said in responses to government requests it took down 129 apps in that period in China for so-called platform violations, such as illegal gambling.
—Yoko Kubota contributed to this article.
Write to Tim Higgins at Tim.Higgins@WSJ.com
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Appeared in the December 24, 2020, print edition as ‘Apple Pulls Games In China as Beijing Tightens Controls.’