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Apple censored apps in Hong Kong and Russia in the name of profit, rights group says

Apple was willing to go a long way to "safeguard" its relationship with the authoritarian regimes and maintain access to their markets, free speech group Great Fire has said.

LGBTQ+ and VPN apps were among those most actively targeted, according to new research released as part of Great Fire's Apple Censorship project.

Its report on Apple's "censorship and compromises" in Russia said the company fully complied with Russia's censorship laws until it left the market in March following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Apple enforced a system of targeted censorship in the Russian version of the App Store to maintain access to the market, the group said. It removed apps the Russian government did not want its people to use, with those with the LGBTQ+ focus among the worst affected.

Heeding the government's censorship rules, Apple blocked at least 25 LGBTQ+ apps in Russia's App Store. These included some of the most popular LGBTQ+ apps in the world, the report said.

"In Russia, Apple has enabled censorship of vulnerable communities while promoting apps that are used by the government for surveillance purposes," Benjamin Ismail, director of the Apple Censorship project, said.

The group also found that 30 VPN apps were removed from the Russian App Store and an increasing number of foreign news apps.

In addition to a report on Russia, the group released another one on Hong Kong, where the group said Apple blocked over 50 VPN and private browsing apps.

It said Apple had censored content that Hong Kong's administration and the Chinese central government deemed as violating local laws or were simply critical of Beijing.

"In the name of profit, Apple censors millions of users from all aspects of society: from activists and political figures to members of vulnerable minorities such as the LGBTQ+ community in Russia or religious and ethnic minorities in China," Ismail said.

Apple's withdrawal from Russia and a decision to move some of its production from China had not provided "tangible evidence" of any improvement of the situation in the App Store so far, Ismail said.

"For all we know, Apple is still willing to collaborate with repressive regimes," he said.

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