Tim Cook defends pulling Hong Kong protest app from App Store

Not too long ago, Apple pulled an app from the regional App Store that’s billed as a protest app in Hong Kong, as it makes it possible for protestors to keep tabs on police locations and more.

Following that initial decision, Apple actually reviewed the app and decided that it did not actually violate any of its App Store policies, even in China, and therefore reinstated the app within the digital storefront. However, following backlash from the Chinese government and local media, Apple this week decided to pull the HKmap.live app from the App Store yet again.

Apple’s decision was accompanied with a statement from Apple following the removal of the app, which read:

We created  App Store  to be a safe and trusted place to discover apps. We have learned that an app, HKmap.live, has been used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong. Many concerned customers in Hong Kong have contacted us about this app and we immediately began investigating it.

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 victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement. This app violates our guidelines and local laws and we have removed it from  App Store .

All of this back-and-forth has led to a lot of backlash for Apple in the United States and Hong Kong, as the company appears to be bending to the will of the Chinese government (again). In a related move, Apple also pulled the Quarts news app due to the Chinese government’s requests.

Now, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, has released an internal memo to Apple employees and executives defending the company’s move to pull the app from the regional App Store (via Bloomberg).

We’ll just get out of the way and show you in full Cook’s comments:


You have likely seen the news that we made the decision to remove an app from the App Store entitled HKmap.live. These decisions are never easy, and it is harder still to discuss these topics during moments of furious public debate. It’s out of my great respect for the work you do every day that I want to share the way we went about making this decision.

It is no secret that technology can be used for good or for ill. This case is no different. The app in question allowed for the crowdsourced reporting and mapping of police checkpoints, protest hotspots, and other information. On its own, this information is benign. However, over the past several days we received credible information, from the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau, as well as from users in Hong Kong, that the app was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimize individuals and property where no police are present. This use put the app in violation of Hong Kong law. Similarly, widespread abuse clearly violates our App Store guidelines barring personal harm.

We built the App Store to be a safe and trusted place for every user. It’s a responsibility that we take very seriously, and it’s one that we aim to preserve. National and international debates will outlive us all, and, while important, they do not govern the facts. In this case, we thoroughly reviewed them, and we believe this decision best protects our users.

Anytime Apple bends to the will of the Chinese government as it pertains to the App Store, or any of Apple’s business, there is always backlash. Most of it is justified, and this appears to be another scenario where Apple made a perceived mistake, fixed it by reinstating the HKmap.live app, but has decided to double down on that initial mistake because the Chinese government has made it clear that it won’t take kindly to Apple seemingly supporting the protestors in Hong Kong in anyway possible.

On the other hand, if this app is indeed leading to violence against law enforcement, as Apple is being told it is, then the company’s decision to pull the app makes sense on that front, and that front alone. Apple, nor the makers of the app itself, can always guarantee some people aren’t going to use the app’s available information for nefarious deeds.

Still, it’s worth noting that the developers behind the app did take to Twitter following Apple’s first removal of the app to argue that the app does not, in fact, endanger Hong Kong police or local residents, saying:

We disagree @Apple and @hkpoliceforce ‘s claim that HKmap App endanger law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong.

Of course, perception on this will vary. This is just the situation as it is now, with Apple deciding to pull the app, and the company’s Chief Executive Officer, defending that action.

Where do you stand?