A Gap in the Great Firewall: Mobile Apps
China’s “Great Firewall” has been central to the Communist Party’s strategy of controlling what residents can and cannot browse online. Websites ranging from search engines, discussion forums, to online media are closely monitored and censored.
Up until now however, mobile apps occupied a corner that has largely been under the radar of the “Great Firewall.” Alphabet Inc’s Google Play Store isn’t available in China and Apple Inc.’s App Store has a severely limited selection of apps in China. Outside of a few major domestic players, Chinese mobile app stores haven’t been heavily regulated.
Last week, new regulations were passed aimed at reining in the hundreds of unregulated mobile app stores in China. The exact number of app stores are unknown, but marketing firm AppInChina estimates that over 200 exist currently. Most of these stores have little to no established process to vet apps before their release.
The announcement was released by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). Since Jan. 16, mobile app stores must register with the CAC to continue to operate legally. Such registration will make it visible to authorities who owns the app store and how many apps are present, allowing regulators to shut down stores as necessary.
Despite Beijing’s stance on regulating mobile app stores, the environment and fragmentation of the market makes it almost impossible to enforce the new measures.
The biggest smartphone platform in China—a country with more than 700 million smartphone users—is Google Android. But Google Play, the default app platform of the operating system, is disabled in China. This gave rise to a proliferation of third-party app stores, the biggest ones are those run by the nation’s large technology companies such as Tencent, Baidu, Xiaomi, and Alibaba. App stores run by these large companies are self-regulated.
But hundreds of other smaller third-party app stores have also sprouted, many with low security and vetting standards. Content that would be strictly blocked on a Chinese website can sometimes now be found inside mobile apps downloaded from these platforms.
Like many Chinese regulations, the guidelines are vague and open-ended. “It’s almost impossible for the regulators to register and supervise all the millions of apps there one by one,” Zhu Wei of the China University of Political Science and Law told the Wall Street Journal.
Hard to Enforce
Judging by the CAC’s language, the enforcement, monitoring, and censorship of content within these apps seems to fall on those operating the mobile app stores. The model CAC has adopted is to police the app stores, with the hope that the app stores will police the apps within.
But that’s a strategy that has proven faulty.
Earlier this month, the New York Times app was taken down by Apple after Chinese government censors demanded Apple remove it. Apple told the Times that its app violated local laws, without elaborating on which laws it violated.
This is hardly a surprise, until one realizes that the New York Times’ website has been blocked by China since 2012. This means that while Chinese censors intended to fully block access to New York Times’ content since 2012, Chinese residents were still able to access New York Times content through its mobile app for the last five years.
And this example involves Apple and New York Times, two of the most visible targets of Chinese censors. There are millions of Chinese mobile apps across hundreds of app platforms, most of which are small, private, and lack the resources to self-censor all of the apps and their content.
How long will it take to cull all of them?