Apple is starting to remove apps from the App Store in China that integrate with CallKit, in response to moves by the country’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to enforce cybersecurity regulations.
In what appears to be a continuation of the government’s efforts to control how China’s citizens use the Internet and connected electronics, China is now seemingly going after online calling services. Apple has started to take down apps from the regional App Store, following another government request.
Notices sent to developers by Apple, received by 9to5Mac, reveal the MIIT “requested that CallKit functionality be deactivated in all apps available on the China App Store.” The note goes on to state the apps in question can return to the store once CallKit functionality has been removed.
CallKit is a developer framework introduced as part of iOS 10, providing an Apple-produced calling interface similar to the main Phone app that can also handle system-level behaviors including Do Not Disturb. While CallKit provides the familiar user interface, the app itself handles the back-end communication element, namely connecting the call between app users.
While it isn’t specifically noted in the Apple message, it is highly likely that the apps being targeted would be those offering VoIP calling functionality. There are relatively few reasons why an app would need to use CallKit, and clamping down on VoIP services is the most logical reason, given China’s previous history regarding online services.
In July 2017, Apple pulled a number of virtual private network (VPN) apps from the Chinese App Store, in order to comply with the country’s cybersecurity laws. At the time, the government was cracking down on unauthorized VPN services, which allowed people to circumvent the so-called “Great Firewall” censorship system that affects almost all Internet traffic in the country.
In response to criticism over the VPN apps disappearing from view, Apple CEO Tim Cook advised “We would obviously rather not remove the apps, but like we do in other countries, we follow the law wherever we do business.” In October the same year, U.S. senators wrote to Cook, suggesting the move potentially enabled the country’s censorship and Internet surveillance policies.
In 2016, China forced Apple to close down its iTunes Movies and iBooks stores in the country, a mere six months after they opened. Reports indicated it was an attempt by the government to restrict the kind of content available to purchase in the stores.
China’s strict cybersecurity laws also forced Apple to open its first data center in the region, with rules requiring foreign firms operating with its borders to store sensitive data on domestic servers ad to pass security reviews before transferring data out of the country. Apple was quick to note its data protection protocols would not be impacted by the laws, insisting there would not be any backdoors available for the government to snoop on its users.