Apple promises to disclose more details about app removals

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Apple has promised to enhance disclosures about why it expels certain apps from its App Store, following claims that the tech giant’s secretive decision-making process threatens freedom of expression in countries such as China and Russia.

Activist investors secured the commitment from Apple earlier this month, according to three people familiar with the agreement. Last March nearly a third of shareholders at its annual meeting backed a resolution calling for greater transparency in its relations with foreign governments.

Petitioners led by Azzad Asset Management, a faith-based investor in the US, and British activist investment platform Tulipshare had called on Apple to give more detail on why certain apps were pulled from the App Store after some Bible and Koran study tools were inexplicably banned from China in late 2021.

Apple declined to comment.

The company has long been criticised for acquiescing to foreign governments’ requests that certain apps be removed. Encrypted messaging tools WhatsApp and Signal are not allowed in China’s App Store, for instance, nor are The New York Times or some social media apps.

It will now give investors more detail about apps that are taken down in its Transparency Report, which currently only tells investors how many apps each country has requested be removed, whether the request is based on a legal violation, and whether Apple complied, according to the people familiar with the agreement.

In the first six months of 2021, for instance, China cited 34 legal violations and asked that 89 apps be removed. Apple did not object to any of those requests, according to the most recent report.

This disclosure model leaves shareholders “in the dark” and prevents them from scrutinising Apple’s decisions, Constance Ricketts, head of shareholder activism at Tulipshare, told the Financial Times.

Apple has agreed to publish the legal basis for removal requests by each government in its next report, according to Tulipshare, alongside a breakdown by country and app category.

However, it will not explain why individual apps have been taken down, as originally requested by the petitioners, two people familiar with the matter said.

Apple also committed to start disclosing how many apps it removes for violating App Store or developer licence agreement guidelines by country, according to the people familiar with the agreement.

“This information will help determine whether Apple’s decision stifles freedom of information and speech,” Ricketts said.

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