An elderly person carries a poster that reads “Changes!” when she takes part in a Belarusian rally … [+]
AFP via Getty Images
Apple’s relentless campaign to make the App Store a clean, well-lit place can now extend to monitoring posts on iOS social apps.
Apple doesn’t seem to have started this by asking Facebook users to silence their relatives about politics, but rather with something further afield: telling the messaging app Telegram to delete posts that the enforcers and enablers have made expose the Belarusian dictatorship.
CEO Pavel Durov complained about Apple’s claims in two posts last week. “Apple demands that we close three channels used by the people of Belarus to reveal the identity of their oppressors,” he wrote on Thursday.
The next day he made it clear that Apple had only requested the removal of “certain contributions to the disclosure of personal information”. Durov also complained that Apple wouldn’t allow Telegram to explain why certain posts had disappeared from its iOS app.
Telegram also offers apps for Android, Windows, and Mac, as well as web apps that should work in any modern browser. Only on iOS does Apple control the distribution of apps on a large scale so that these app developers are at the mercy of grace.
Durov’s posts cited three channels – Karatelibelarusi, Chatpartizan, and Belarusassholes – that Belarusian activists use to name and shame people who work to uphold Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian mistake. Reviled as “Europe’s last dictatorship”, he has brutally suppressed political opponents, including the obvious rigging of the August elections in his favor.
Belarusian activists have become used to Telegram to coordinate their protests, thanks to the app’s use of internet routing tactics to evade the regime’s online censorship.
The three public telegram channels in question contain specific details, apart from phone numbers and license plates, about these alleged facilitators of the regime – “violent oppressors and those who helped rig the elections,” as Durov put it last Thursday.
Apple confirmed its request to delete individual posts via Telegram, referring to the App Store rules for apps that host user-generated content. They require these programs to provide systems that can “filter unwanted material,” “report offensive content,” and “exclude abusive users from the service.”
The Dubai-based Telegram Terms of Service include reporting and disconnection provisions that appear to meet these criteria.
Apple’s rules do not define “objectionable” or “objectionable,” although a separate data usage provision that the Cupertino, Calif. Company did not quote, states that an app “must not use, transfer, or disclose any person’s personal information, without first obtaining their permission. ”
This could cover “doxing” – posting sufficient public documentation on an individual to expose them to physical harm or plausible threats. Most social apps prohibit it, but Telegram’s rules don’t specifically cover it.
The Telegram did not respond to two requests for comments sent to the press contact via the app.
Natalia Krapiva, technology legal advisor at Digital Rights Group Access Now, distinguished in an email between making officials accountable for abuse of power by posting their names and faces and adding contact information and demands for retaliation.
“This increases the likelihood that not justice but violent reprisals, including against innocent third parties, will occur,” she wrote. “Most, if not all, social media platforms have guidelines against it, and I think rightly so.”
Apple didn’t answer questions about whether the Belarusian regime had requested deletion of posts, why it banned Telegram from explaining why posts had disappeared from its iOS apps, or whether it had made similar requests to other apps.
Krapiva noted a related case: Apple’s removal in October of HKmap.Live, an app used by Hong Kong protesters to track police movements. In contrast to Belarus, China has an enormous economic influence on Apple.
In these three telegram channels there is still a flood of posts with highly specific data on alleged Lukashenko enablers – not only on the web and in the Android app, but also in a copy of the current iPad app from Telegram.
Telegram users are likely to share more such data using the app’s end-to-end encrypted messaging, but neither Telegram nor Apple can see this communication.
The idea that Apple asserts the right to police user contributions in an iOS app has baffled one of its main critics.
“I’ve never heard of that,” wrote David Heinemeier Hansson, Founder and Chief Technology Officer at Basecamp, via email. “That’s completely bananas.”
This company stood up against Apple’s request to change their Hey Email app to add Apple’s in-app billing and the 30% revenue cut for Apple. After that, Apple resigned and Hey added a free trial mode to its iOS program.
Facebook and Twitter don’t seem at risk of Apple stepping in, but smaller companies have a lot less leverage.
Brown didn’t say whether Parler had received other Apple requests to remove posts.
Access Now’s Krapiva suggested that if Apple wants to start monitoring content, it should try a bit of transparency – not just documenting its rules, but maintaining a defined appeal process – as in their own content governance recommendations Group outlined.
That’s a good idea. But transparency is not the top priority at Apple.