Apple Killed An App That Let Chinese People Circumvent the Great Firewall

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OpenDoor is an app that lets you anonymously surf the internet on your iPhone or iPad. A third of OpenDoor's sales have historically come from China, where internet freedom's restricted and most people access the net on mobile. That is until this past summer, when Apple pulled Open Door from the app store after the Chinese government complained. 

Apple's rationale was straightforward: the app violates local laws, and the app store has to follow the laws of whatever country it operates in. 

This seems like a familiar story, but it's not. The familiar-seeming part is that American tech companies in China have always had to make compromises between appeasing the Chinese government while not looking completely unethical at home (cf. Google censoring Tianammen Square searches). But the reason this isn't the same old song is that Apple's woes are Apple's fault in a unique way here. 

Apple's mobile devices are designed to be closed architecture. You can't install programs Apple hasn't approved. Apple doesn't make a significant direct profit from the App store, but the store indirectly profits Apple because it ensures that their consumers aren't driven away from iDevices after installing programs that are buggy, spammy, or objectionable. The problem is, by inserting their editorial control into the App process, Apple also makes it possible for China to demand they censor apps. Apple has given themselves that capability, so China can tell them how to use it. That's much less true of platforms like Google's Android, which are open architecture. Google can say, credibly, "We can't control what goes on our phones. Sorry!"

When the iPhone was first introduced, it was designed as a smartphone that would teach people how to use smartphones, the same way that Apple's computers were designed to be inviting for people who were terrified of computers. The App store made a kind of sense then. But now? Apple's created a world of people who are smartphone literate. Apple should get rid of the App store, or else keep it, but allow people to install programs from outside of it if they choose. If Apple would give up a little bit of control, they could get to do a lot more good abroad.