That Apple is homophobic is not something you’d expect—or that it is, at the very least, subservient to homophobes. Even if over the years it has tried to accredit itself as a company that “thinks differently,” even if it covered its brand with the colors of the rainbow on the occasion of the latest Pride event. It’s all about the brand, because we are talking about Apple, the colossus which became the first company to exceed a market capitalization of 2 trillion. To be more precise, we are talking about its online stores, from which 1 billion users around the world are buying or downloading applications for the iPhone and iPad.
A few days ago, two organizations published the results of research they conducted: GreatFire and Fight for the Future, the latter being one of the most combative—and least rigidly institutional—organizations fighting for digital rights.
The data painted a shameful picture: apps conceived and designed for the LGBTQ+ world have been made unavailable in the App Stores of 152 countries. Apple, the friendly company from Cupertino, has quietly acquiesced to the wishes of the most backward, most reactionary, and, indeed, most homophobic governments.
Even worse: the apps that have been made to disappear from the stores are mainly those where persecuted minorities can try to find support and help. This is no less than complicity.
How was this analysis conducted (which cost many months of research and also involved coordination with small local groups)? A long list was compiled of all the iOS apps explicitly dedicated to LGBTQ+ communities. This list was then compared with those available in Apple’s virtual stores across—literally—all the countries on the five continents. They discovered that Saudi Arabia is the country with the highest number of “unavailable” apps, followed by China. Needless to say, scrolling through the results, we see that the countries with the most blocked apps are those at the bottom of the human rights rankings.
In this list of shame, six of the ten most censoring App Stores are located in Sub-Saharan Africa. As we hinted before, one of the least available iOS apps in the world is weBelong (it cannot be downloaded in 144 countries), which is used to find communities in order to share means of self-defense.
As Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, a Boston-based transgender musician, writer and activist, explains, “Apple’s rainbow flags are highly hypocritical. Because the company is actively helping governments around the world to isolate, to silence, to repress” non-binary people.
In short, Apple seems to accept censorship as the “cost of doing business.” The company has always hidden behind the position that it is merely respecting local laws. But this is not true either, because there are the cases of Nigeria and South Korea, where there are no laws against homosexuality, but which are also at the top of the list of the most censored App Stores.
An Apple spokesperson told il manifesto that in many cases, it is the developers who have decided on their own not to publish their apps in some countries, for their own security or for commercial or legal reasons. For instance, the Cupertino giant claims it hasn’t removed any app in the Chinese app store, pointing out that, for example, Scruff (a dating app for men seeking men) is available in the store in the People’s Republic. Moreover, again according to Apple, in many cases apps are removed for “specific legal reasons,” especially in countries with well-defined rules, such as France or the United Kingdom.
However, according to Utsav Gandhi, one of the researchers who prepared the report, compliance with local regulations is just “another smokescreen.” And the situation is even more serious because Apple knows that there are no alternatives to its virtual app stores.
There are no alternatives because it doesn’t allow them. Since 2008, Apple has only allowed the distribution and sale of iPhone software from its own stores. All applications produced by any company or group must pass through its screening, and, above all, must be sold in its stores. This obviously guarantees huge profits for the company, but even more, it creates a bottleneck and a point of control, making the censors’ job easier.
Furthermore, those who have tried to get around these limitations—skipping the App Stores altogether and trying to distribute the software from their own websites—have been confronted with the fact that iOS devices are designed to limit their functionality. To name just one issue among many, and one that is particularly crucial for the apps we’ve been talking about, the iPhone doesn’t allow notifications to the user if the app wasn’t downloaded from Apple’s App Store. And we’re talking about apps that are meant to warn users of possible dangers and threats. This is the current situation, to the point that a campaign to ask the U.S. Congress to put an end to this monopoly has been active for some time.
A liberalization of the App Stores will likely take a very long time: on the legislative timescale. But there is an emergency right now: “To those who choose not to look, it may seem like an exaggeration: but this is a matter of life and death for many queer and trans people around the world, who often find community and safety only through these apps,” adds Utsav Gandhi. “And it is unacceptable for Apple to continue this business practice, which is fundamentally incompatible with the basic human rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people.”