Apple has complied with an order from the Cyberspace Administration of China to remove Meta Platforms’ WhatsApp and Threads from its App Store in China over national security concerns.

The Wall Street Journal which first reported on the development, also cited app tracking firms Qimai and AppMagic, as revealing that besides WhatsApp and Threads, Apple has also removed the Telegram and Signal messaging apps from its App Store.

The demand is the latest example of the strict censorship regime that exists in mainland China, and come as Apple has witnessed a sales decline of its iPhone portfolio in its second biggest market.

Image credit: Apple

National security

Despite Apple removing two of Meta’s messaging apps, it seems that Facebook, Instagram and Messenger have remained available to download, according to checks by Reuters on Friday.

Many other popular Western apps such as YouTube and X were also available.

It was not immediately clear how WhatsApp or Threads might have caused security concerns for Chinese authorities.

“The Cyberspace Administration of China ordered the removal of these apps from the China storefront based on their national security concerns,” Apple told Reuters in an emailed statement.

“We are obligated to follow the laws in the countries where we operate, even when we disagree,” the statement added.

Meta reportedly declined to comment and referred queries to Apple.

Apple also did not respond to requests for comment on the removal of Signal and Telegram.

Representatives for the two companies did not immediately reply to requests for comment, Reuters reported.

VPN access

Reuters noted that WhatsApp, Threads, Telegram or Signal are not widely used in China, with the local population opting to use Tencent’s WeChat instead.

It should be noted that these apps and many foreign apps are already blocked on China’s “Great Firewall” – and can only be used with a virtual private network (VPNs).

The four apps however remain available in Hong Kong and Macau, China’s two special administrative regions.

According to Reuters, some experts on China’s tech industry said the government order on WhatsApp and Threads could be related to a new rule last August that requires all apps available in China to register with the government or risk being removed.

The deadline for companies to complete registrations was the end of March and the regulations came into effect on 1 April 2024.

Apple compliance

Apple has been criticised for years over its position in China, with some labelling its actions as appeasement, amid the repressive rule of President Xi Jinping.

For years Apple has removed apps from the China App Store, paid podcasts and Apple TV+ services in China, as well as removing third-party VPN apps from the App Store and eliminating the flag of Taiwan emoji from the keyboard.

In 2014 Apple began storing the personal data of Chinese users on servers in mainland China – the first time it stored information in the country.

It partnered up with China Telecom Corp to use its data centres, saying the move would result in a faster service for iCloud users. However that move also allowed it to comply with Chinese government requests for data on thousands of Apple devices in the country.

Then in 2017 Apple announced that it would build a data centre in the Chinese province of Guizhou in order to comply with strict new Chinese data protection regulations.

Apple also in 2017 revealed plans to build two more R&D centres in Shanghai and Suzhou as part of a 3.5 billion yuan (£410 million) investment, adding to the two in Beijing and Shenzhen that were announced in 2016.

Also in 2017 Apple removed The New York Times news app, saying it violated local regulations.

In 2019 Apple removed an app that allowed Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters to keep track of Chinese police.

In 2021 Apple was criticised for removing one of the most popular Quran apps from its app store in China.

In November 2022 Apple quietly limited AirDrop in China, after feature was used in anti-government protests.

And mostly recent in February 2023 Apple pulled a number of ChatGPT-like apps, after Beijing restricted generative artificial intelligence (AI) services.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

Recent Posts

EU Widens Investigations Into Chinese Imports, Subsidies

After the United States imposes 100 percent tariffs on certain Chinese goods, Europe widens its…

3 days ago

Reddit Deal With OpenAI Gives ChatGPT Access To Content

OpenAI strikes deal with Reddit to train its AI tech on user posts and give…

3 days ago

Microsoft Invests 4 Billion Euros In France For AI, Cloud

Global spending spree from Microsoft continues, with huge investment for new data centre to drive…

3 days ago

Toshiba Axes 4,000 Staff In Post-Delisting Restructuring Operation

Workforce blow. Newly privatised Toshiba has embarked on a 'revitalisation plan' that will entail the…

4 days ago

European Union Opens Child Safety Probe Into Meta

European Commission opens an official child safety investigation into Facebook and Instagram-owner Meta Platforms

4 days ago