Apple may purge hundreds of thousands of apps from App Store in China

In late 2020, 39,000 games disappeared from the iOS App Store for China in a single day. The same could happen on an even greater scale in the coming weeks, thanks to new policy enforcement by the Chinese government.

China has decided to regulate all apps the way that it has regulated websites and games for many years. All websites available in China have needed to apply for and receive an Internet Content Provider (ICP) Filing Number for years. In 2020, China started requiring games to apply for and receive a license, leading to the massive App Store purge.

Now the same is true for any app.

After weeks of rumors that China was pressuring Apple to take action, Apple started to require additional information from app publishers for apps they wish to make available in the country. According to Apple’s developer documentation, this is required at multiple levels depending on the type of app:

  • All apps: must “possess a valid Internet Content Provider (ICP) Filing Number”
  • Games: “must secure an approval number”
  • Book and magazine apps: “must secure an internet publishing permit from China’s National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA)”
  • Religious apps: “must secure an Internet Religious Information Permit from China’s National Religious Affairs Administration (NRAA)”
  • News apps: “must obtain an Internet News Information Permit from the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC)”

There has essentially been a loophole in China’s great firewall on the iOS App Store, where apps have until now been published without significant friction. While the websites of news and social networking platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have been blocked for years, Chinese iPhone owners could download them from the Chinese App Store by using a VPN, according to MacRumors. Games lost that loophole three years ago, and now it appears that all apps are losing it as China has ordered Apple to ban unregistered foreign apps.

The background for this current move by China is additional pressure on Apple: China initially banned iPhones in government offices, and then expanded that ban to government-backed agencies and state companies. The result was a $200 billion drop in Apple’s value.

The big question now is: will Apple apply these rules on a go-forward basis, or will it apply them retroactively to all existing apps on the App Store that are available in China?

If it’s the former, the iOS App Store for China will gradually lose apps as they get older and older without updates. (Apple has a history of purging apps that are old and not updated, and deleted 21% of the apps on the App Store in December of 2021.) But if it’s the latter and follows the example of games in 2020, hundreds of thousands of apps that have been available in China could be deleted in a much shorter timeframe.

I’ve asked Apple for a comment on this, and will update if they clarify.

Perhaps an even bigger question yet is why the United States and other countries allow Chinese game and app developers to make billions of dollars in global markets while the Chinese government restricts access to its own digital space. Just last year Chinese app developers overtook the U.S, dominating a list of the top 52 publishers globally, according to China Daily.

Those developers include ByteDance, owner of TikTok, as well as Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, and more.


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