By Tripp Mickle , Jeff Horwitz and Yoko Kubota
Apple Inc. and Google both removed apps associated with Hong
Kong's antigovernment protests from their digital stores in recent
days, thrusting the two Silicon Valley giants into the controversy
engulfing U.S. companies related to the unrest.
Apple removed from its App Store a crowdsourced map service that
allows Hong Kong protesters to track police activity, one day after
the Chinese Communist Party-run People's Daily newspaper lashed out
at the iPhone maker, calling the app "toxic software."
Apple said it pulled the app, called HKmap.live, because of
concerns it endangered law enforcement and residents.
Separately, Alphabet Inc.'s Google unit removed from its Google
Play store a mobile game that allowed players to role-play as a
Hong Kong protester. According to the developer, Google said the
app, called "The Revolution of Our Times," violated rules related
to "sensitive events." Google didn't immediately respond to a
request for comment.
The swift removal of apps Beijing finds objectionable will
likely help lower the two tech giants' risk of running afoul of the
Chinese government and upsetting consumers in the country. But it
could also subject them to criticism in the West that they are
siding with Beijing in the contentious debate over Hong Kong's
Google's presence in China is relatively small -- core services
like search, Gmail and YouTube remain blocked and out of reach for
most Chinese citizens. However, for Apple, "the decision signifies
just how important the mainland China market is," said Mark Tanner,
managing director at China Skinny, a Shanghai-based market-research
The recent rise of nationalism in China, Mr. Tanner said,
"already has Apple in a precarious spot as an American brand, and
they will not want to fuel further consumer nationalist
But U.S. brands "will increasingly be aware of pushback from
consumers in markets outside of China" that sympathize with Hong
Kong protesters, he added.
The moves by Apple and Google stand in contrast to the approach
taken by the National Basketball Association, roiled by a weeklong
crisis in its relationship with China -- its most lucrative and
promising overseas market.
After a Houston Rockets executive tweeted support for Hong
Kong's protesters last week, the NBA initially said it was
regrettable that his comments disappointed people in China. It
later affirmed the executive's right to free speech and declined to
apologize, but its response still triggered attacks from U.S.
politicians on the left and right.
Meanwhile, China has canceled broadcasts of preseason games and
the NBA has lost key Chinese sponsors.
While the NBA is a league with no direct alternatives, Apple has
rising local rivals offering phones with similar features for a
Apple said it pulled the HKmap.live app after Hong Kong's Cyber
Security and Technology Crime Bureau said it was being "used to
target and ambush police" and that "criminals have used it to
victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law
"This app violates our guidelines and local laws," Apple
The app's developer confirmed the removal on its Twitter
account, @hkmaplive, disputing the claim that it endangered police
and calling Apple's move a political decision.
China accounted for $52 billion of Apple's sales last year, a
fifth of the company's total.
In recent years, Apple has deleted hundreds of apps from its
mainland China app store, including the New York Times app, which
Apple removed in 2017, saying it violated local regulations.
Critics have accused the company of complying with censorship to
satisfy authorities in one of its most important markets. Apple has
said it is obligated to comply with local laws.
Recently, Apple removed the news outlet Quartz's app from its
App Store in China. A Quartz editor said on Twitter that Apple
blocked the app at the request of China, likely because of the
outlet's coverage of Hong Kong protests. Apple said it removed
Quartz because Chinese authorities said it didn't comply with local
Apple also recently made another change to its software in Hong
Kong, removing a digital image of the Taiwan flag from its list of
emojis within iPhone keyboards in the city. China claims Taiwan,
which has been ruled independently for 70 years, as part of its
rightful territory. Apple said it removed the flag in accordance
with Hong Kong law.
Controversy around HKmap.live, which denotes the presence of
police with an emoji of a dog, dinosaur or police car, has plagued
Apple for the past week.
Apple initially rejected the app during its review process,
drawing criticism last week across social media in the U.S. and
Europe. After the developer appealed that decision and the app was
approved, Chinese state media began criticizing Apple.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Thursday in response
to questions about the Apple app that companies that do business in
China should respect its laws and the feelings of the Chinese
HKmap.live remains available in Hong Kong and elsewhere through
the Google Play Store, which isn't available in mainland China.
Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, has a
commercial agreement to supply news through Apple services.
Meanwhile, "The Revolution of Our Times" was removed from Google
Play three days after it went online.
The developer is a Hong Kong resident who quit his job at a
fintech company to work on the game, which he hoped would engage
people who aren't that familiar or inherently interested in the
The game was downloaded 4,500 times in three days. So far it
made around $150, or 1,200 Hong Kong dollars, from in-app
purchases, according to the developer, who declined to be
Google's "sensitive events" policy says Google won't allow apps
that "lack reasonable sensitivity towards or capitalize on a
natural disaster, atrocity, conflict, death, or other tragic
The developer has appealed to Google. "This isn't capitalizing
on tragedy," the developer said, adding he plans to donate 80% of
the revenue to an entity that helps pay legal bills for arrested
Write to Tripp Mickle at Tripp.Mickle@wsj.com and Yoko Kubota at
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 10, 2019 09:22 ET (13:22 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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