Historical Stock Chart
1 Month : From Sep 2019 to Oct 2019
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 future.
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 firm.
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 sentiment."
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 cheaper price.
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 enforcement."
"This app violates our guidelines and local laws," Apple said.
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 law.
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 people.
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 protests.
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 named.
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 event."
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 protesters.
Write to Tripp Mickle at Tripp.Mickle@wsj.com and Yoko Kubota at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 10, 2019 09:22 ET (13:22 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.