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Apple Adapts to Changing Regulations in China, Expected to Tighten Access to Foreign Apps

Apple has made revisions to its guidelines on the Chinese app developer website to align with the latest government regulations, requiring all apps for local users to be licensed. This move signifies Apple’s commitment to complying with evolving regulations amidst ongoing tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Apple has not yet responded to requests for comments regarding this development.

China is preparing to enforce a policy aimed at addressing a significant loophole in its “Great Firewall.” This loophole allows Chinese citizens to download and access banned foreign apps via the Apple App Store using virtual private networks (VPNs).

Despite reports that some Apple staff had raised concerns with Chinese officials about these new rules, Apple has updated its app developer guidelines to enforce the licensing of both new and existing apps.

According to Apple’s app developer website, “The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology of China (MIIT) requires apps to have a valid Internet Information Provider (ICP) registration number,” and it directs users to further ICP filing information.

This development follows a recent move by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which published a list of duly registered “app distribution platforms” on its website. Apple, accounting for a quarter of smartphone shipments in China in the first half of 2023, was notably absent from this list.

In August 2022, CAC published a regulation requiring app distribution platforms, including app stores and mini-program platforms like WeChat, to submit specific information for “registration.” According to this regulation, app stores are responsible for monitoring the content of apps in their stores and must refuse to upload apps containing illegal or harmful content.

The MIIT also stated in August that failure to register between September 2023 and March 2024 would lead to consequences, although specific penalties were not outlined.

This regulatory shift is expected to affect social media apps like X (formerly known as Twitter), Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube, all of which are accessible through Apple’s Chinese app store but require a VPN to use in China.

Despite China’s strict internet censorship, this Apple App Store loophole has allowed these Western apps to remain popular among Chinese users who use VPNs to bypass restrictions.

Apple’s Chinese App Store currently lists Google Chrome and Instagram in its top 200 “Top Free Apps” chart. In July, Meta’s microblogging app Threads also briefly became a top-rated social media app in China upon its debut.

For Apple, these new restrictions in the Chinese market pose the latest challenge, following an unofficial ban on government workers using iPhones and the launch of a new 5G smartphone by domestic competitor Huawei Technologies.

Chiew Le Xuan, a global technology market analyst at Canalys, believes that despite these obstacles, Apple will comply with the new app regulations given China’s importance as a market. However, he does not anticipate a significant short-term impact on Apple’s business.

“The iPhone 15 has already proven to be a hit in China following its launch last month, despite concerns from some analysts about potential impacts on sales due to increased geopolitical tensions and nationalist sentiment,” says Chiew.

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