Citing local regulations, Apple has removed The New York Times news app from its app store in China. The incident is the latest in the long history of media restrictions in the country, but also in the ongoing pattern of tech companies getting involved in the efforts.
The New York Times reports that Apple removed both its English-language and Chinese-language apps from the app store in China on Dec. 23, though other prominent publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times as well as the Times' crossword puzzle and virtual-reality apps remain available.
Along with other websites, the Times has faced restrictions for years. The site has been subject of blocks since 2012, when the newspaper reported on the wealth amassed by the family of the then-prime minister.
Apple did not explain Thursday what distinguished the Times from other outlets. Spokesman Fred Sainz shared a statement:
"For some time now the New York Times app has not been permitted to display content to most users in China and we have been informed that the app is in violation of local regulations. As a result, the app must be taken down off the China App Store. When this situation changes, the App Store will once again offer the New York Times app for download in China."
Sainz did not elaborate on what legal standard was applied to warrant the removal of the news app, but the Times suggested it was under 2016 regulations issued for mobile apps:
"The regulations say apps cannot 'engage in activities prohibited by laws and regulations such as endangering national security, disrupting social order and violating the legitimate rights and interests of others.' The cyberspace administration says on its website that apps also cannot publish 'prohibited information."
Over the years, numerous publications have faced blackouts in China, including Bloomberg, Time and The Economist. Users in China sometimes use software to circumvent the government's firewall to surf the Web and access blocked sites.
For tech companies, China is a massive, lucrative market and a major manufacturing hub, but operations there are tricky. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google have been restricted. Apple's own iBooks and iTunes Movies were blocked, as well, not long after they were introduced.
For Apple, China is a key production location and sales market. But iPhone sales have slumped there in recent years. In May, Apple invested $1 billion in Chinese ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing.
The company has, in the past, removed other media apps from its App Store, but none as prominent as The Times, according to the newspaper. And it's far from the first time that a tech company cooperated with the Chinese government to suppress content, as the industry generally complies with local regulations around the world.
In 2016, The New York Times reported that Facebook quietly developed software that could prevent posts from appearing in people's news feeds in specific parts of China, going further than the typical practice by U.S. Internet companies to block certain content after it's posted.
The newspaper also reported, just last month, on "a hidden bounty of perks, tax breaks and subsidies in China that supports the world's biggest iPhone factory" — billions of dollars' worth of incentives at the heart of Apple's phone production.
In 2014, the radio program Marketplace reported on LinkedIn censoring posts from its members that were deemed sensitive by China's government. In 2010, Google altered how users in China could access the site as it faced possible loss of license to operate in the country.
Perhaps the most notorious case dates back to early 2000s, when Chinese authorities arrested and imprisoned dissidents, including a Chinese journalist, based on evidence provided by Yahoo.
Yahoo settled a lawsuit by the dissidents' families in 2007. In 2005, Yahoo bought what later became its most valuable asset: a stake in a Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
If you're trying to download The New York Times on your iPhone in China, there is no longer an app for that. Apple has removed the news app for The New York Times from its mobile store in the country. It's the latest in a long history of tech companies ceding to Chinese restrictions on Western media. NPR's tech blogger Alina Selyukh is here to tell us more. Welcome to the studio.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hi.
CORNISH: What does Apple say happened?
SELYUKH: Apple says it is complying with a request from Chinese authorities to remove both the Chinese language and English language news apps by The New York Times from its app store in the country. And The Times reports, actually, this decision happened about two weeks ago. And meanwhile, other big Western news apps are still available to download, like The Wall Street Journal. And even some of the other Times apps are still up, like the crossword puzzle - just not the news app.
CORNISH: And Apple has been getting some criticism for this move, right? I mean, how do they justify it?
SELYUKH: The company points out that The New York Times app has long not been permitted to actually display any content to most users and says that it's been informed that the app violates local regulations. Now, Apple isn't specifying what regulations these were exactly, but The Times suggests that it might be the new rules for mobile apps that were issued last year. And they prohibit activities that, for example, might endanger national security or disrupt social order, among other things.
CORNISH: So how significant is this? I mean, is this the first time Apple has, like, removed a news app just because Chinese authorities asked them to?
SELYUKH: This is not the first time Apple has removed an app. They've done that with other apps and specifically media apps in the past, but none of them have been as prominent as The New York Times. And it's important to point out that The Times as a website has long faced crackdowns in China, going back to 2012, when they did a series of stories on the wealth of the prime minister's family. And many other Western news outlets have faced similar retaliatory blackouts - for instance, Bloomberg, Time magazine, The Economist. And users in China have sort of adapted to this. They often use software to circumvent the so-called Great Chinese Firewall to surf the web and access some of these websites.
CORNISH: And I can't imagine it's just news organizations. We know that tech companies have also faced restrictions.
SELYUKH: Certainly. Twitter, Facebook, Google - they've all faced blackouts. Apple's own books and movie services were shut down very soon after first launching. For tech companies, it's been a very delicate market. It's very large. It's very lucrative. For companies like Apple that make actual things, it's a huge manufacturing hub. Apple specifically has had its iPhone sales slump in recent years in China. But then last year, they did this pretty uncharacteristic investment, putting a billion dollars into basically a Chinese version of Uber, a ride-hailing app, Didi. So a lot of these tech companies are walking a very delicate line, trying to stay within the boundaries of local regulations, but also trying to grow their market share there.
CORNISH: That's NPR's tech blogger, Alina Selyukh. Thanks so much.
SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.