Boom, an iOS-only keyboard app that converts regular text into random emojis or Chinese characters, was taken down from Apple’s Chinese App Store on Thursday. This comes after reports about Chinese netizens skirting online content controls using similar technology.

Why it matters: The Chinese government is tightly managing global and domestic perception of its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, including removing a video game which tasks players with spreading pathogens, and taking down personal accounts from netizens critical of the government’s response to the crisis.

  • On social media, there was speculation that the keyboard app was used to circumvent content controls.
  • Other apps removed from China’s App Store on the same basis include the popular pathogen genesis game Plague Inc, the Quartz news app, Chinese news aggregator Houxu, and hundreds of others throughout the years.

Details: Apple said in a notice to Boom developer Wang “Greyfish” Huiyu that the app was removed for containing content that is illegal in China, which violates App Store Review Guidelines. 

  • Boom uses straightforward methods like text scrambling or simple symmetric encryption. It is a tool for amusement rather than data security as its icon suggests, although it is technically capable of tripping up keyword-matching searches.
  • Wang denied that Boom was used to evade content controls in a specific case, though he did confirm to TechNode that his app made it on to the Top 200 most-downloaded apps list on the Chinese App Store.
  • The keyboard app was live in the Chinese App Store for only 20 days. Pop, a wallpaper app Wang also created which has been on the App Store since March 2018, was also removed for the same reason.
  • Pop can convert video clips to “live” photos so that users can make dynamic wallpaper for their iPhones. The app also comes with some stock wallpapers consisting mainly of the developer’s illustrations of political leaders like US President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and former Chinese Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin. 
  • Prior to the removal of his apps, Wang’s official account on WeChat as well as his Weibo account were permanently removed.

Context: Apple has been criticized for its compliance with requests from Chinese authorities to remove offerings from emoji to apps. 

  • The company’s transparency report showed that 194 apps were taken down for containing “pornography and illegal content” in the first half of 2019 and more than 700 were removed in 2018
  • Many organizations have urged the Cupertino-based tech giant for transparency on legal violations cited in app removals.
  • The Chinese App Store earned gross revenue of $8.8 billion in 2019, but indie developers are struggling to comply with its rules. Developers were asked earlier this year to verify their identity by allowing Apple capture and store their facial images.
  • Apple announced at the end of February that all game publishers must obtain a Chinese gaming license by the end of June to stay on the store shelves. The requirement may throttle the nearly 20,000 unlicensed titles still on the App Store.