SAN FRANCISCO/HONG KONG: Apple Inc has removed an app that helped Hong Kong protesters track police movements, saying it was used to ambush law enforcement, following sharp criticism of the US tech giant by a Chinese state newspaper for allowing the software.
The decision to bar the HKmap.live app, which crowdsources the locations of both police and protesters, from its App Store plunges Apple into the increasingly fraught political tension between China and the protesters that has also ensnared other US and Hong Kong businesses.
Apple had only just last week approved the app after rejecting it earlier this month.
The Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper on Tuesday called the app "poisonous" and decried what it said was Apple's complicity in helping the Hong Kong protesters.
Apple said in a statement on Wednesday it had begun an immediate investigation after "many concerned customers in Hong Kong" contacted it about the app and Apple found it had endangered law enforcement and residents.
"The app displays police locations and we have verified with the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimise residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement," it said.
Apple did not comment beyond its statement. The company also removed BackupHK, a separate app that served as a mirror of the HKmap.live app.
Maya Wang, a senior China researcher with Human Rights Watch, said there could be legitimate concerns of misuse of apps but that the statement from Apple was “disingenuous” because it did not make any reference to pressure from Beijing in the People's Daily commentary.
“Given the context of how (Apple) has over the years removed apps and removed access to news particularly inside mainland China that the Chinese government doesn’t want, I think that the removal of this particular app strikes me as another shameful incident in which a multinational company bends to Chinese government pressure," she said.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment on Wang's remarks.
On Twitter, an account believed to be owned by the HKmap.live app's developer said it disagreed with Apple's decision and that there was no evidence to support the Hong Kong police's claims that the app had been used in ambushes.
"The majority of user review(s) in App Store ... suggest HKmap IMPROVED public safety, not the opposite," it said.
The app consolidates content from public posts on social networks and moderators delete content that solicits criminal activity and would ban repeated attempts to post such content in the app, it added.
Neither China's foreign ministry nor the information office of the State Council had an immediate comment when asked about the HKmap.live app removal. Hong Kong police also had no immediate comment.
Separately, Apple removed the Quartz news app from its App Store in China because authorities said it violated local laws.
Quartz Chief Executive Zach Seward told technology publication The Verge in a statement: "We abhor this kind of government censorship of the internet, and have great coverage of how to get around such bans around the world."
ANGER IN HONG KONG
The People's Daily newspaper on Tuesday blasted Apple, saying it did not have a sense of right and wrong, and ignored the truth. Making the app available on Apple's Hong Kong App Store at this time was "opening the door" to violent protesters in the former British colony, the newspaper wrote.
The HKmap.live app was taken down from Apple's App Store globally on Wednesday but continued to work for users who had previously downloaded it in Hong Kong, Reuters found. A web version was also still viewable on iPhones.
Word of its removal spread quickly in Hong Kong, where residents had been campaigning for months, in sometimes violent demonstrations, initially to protest a now-withdrawn extradition bill and now in a broader push for democratic rights.
"Does the entire world have to suck up to the garbage Communist Party?" one commentator, Yip Lou Jie, said in an online forum, LIHKG, used by protesters in Hong Kong.
But Simon Young, associate dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong, said Apple seemed to have a case, given the circumstances.
"It sounds like they are being responsible. To do nothing when it's being used for a specific purpose that actually facilitates these protests, to do nothing would be rather irresponsible," he said.
Apple's action has come amid a furore surrounding the US National Basketball Association after a team official tweeted in support of the protests in Hong Kong, which led Chinese sponsors and partners to cut ties with the NBA.
Cathay Pacific Airways, Hong Kong's flagship carrier, has also felt the wrath of China's aviation regulator, which has called for the suspension of staff who have taken part in the protests or expressed support.
Under Apple's rules and policies, apps that meet its standards to appear in the App Store have sometimes been removed after their release if they were found to facilitate illegal activity or threaten public safety.
In 2011, Apple modified its App Store to remove apps that listed locations for drunken driving checkpoints not previously published by law enforcement officials.