The next great China app purge is likely coming soon: you will now need Chinese government approval to list your iOS apps

By John Koetsier October 3, 2023

Apps are now just like websites and movies. Going forward, app publishers will need Chinese government approval to list their apps on the iOS App Store for China, as Apple is now requiring an ICP (Internet Content Provider) license filing to submit an app for publishing.

For movies, China restricts the number of foreign films to under a hundred, and they must pass review before release. For websites, all hosts and operators must apply for an ICP from the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. If China detects a website without one, it will block the website. Mobile games as well have been heavily regulated.

Now, essentially, the same is true for all mobile apps.

iOS apps in China and ICP

After weeks of rumblings from China, Apple began requiring app developers to apply for a submit an ICP filing when they publish new apps, Reuters says. Apple has been resisting this for years, but given that China sets the rules for what happens in China, submission was inevitable.

Exactly what hoops you need to jump through will depend on exactly what type of app, game, or content you provide. From Apple’s developer documentation:

  • Apps: must possess a valid Internet Content Provider (ICP) Filing Number
  • Games: must secure an additional approval number
  • Additional app certifications required:
    • Apps with book/magazine content: must secure an internet publishing permit
    • Apps with religious content: must secure an Internet Religious Information Permit from China’s National Religious Affairs Administration
    • Apps with news content: must obtain an Internet News Information Permit from the Cyberspace Administration of China

There is no guarantee, of course, that applying for a certificate or permit ensures that you will get one. In addition, if China’s app policies follow their web policies, foreign companies that have no presence in China will not be able to apply for the ICP. Those who can apply include:

  • Partially or completely Chinese-owned companies
  • Chinese nationals with Chinese passports
  • Foreigners who are in China can apply for individual licenses

In other words, non-Chinese apps will have to work with a local app publisher, and may have to work on an arrangement for partial local ownership or licensing.

The big purge? What does this mean for apps already published in China?

The number of apps available on all app stores in China has been decreasing over the past 6 years, according to Statista.

That’s generally counter-trend to Google Play and the iOS App Store in general, where the overall number of apps has been either steady or growing (minus a Google Play crackdown on poor quality apps in 2018 and an Apple crackdown on old un-updated apps last year).

china apps store

Chinese regulations have resulted in massive purges from the App Store in the past. In 2020, Apple removed 39,000 games from the iOS App Store for China in one fell swoop. Games have always required more onerous regulatory approvals. At that time, only 74 of the top 1,500 highest-grossing games survived the cut.

One likely scenario now is that Apple will be forced to do the same with app in the near future, presumably after giving apps some kind of grace period in which to apply for publishing permission. The other, perhaps more palatable option is that any app update will require proof of permission, so that in the near future, no apps without permission will be available on the iOS App Store in China.

But if history repeats, hundreds of thousands of apps could be affected almost overnight.

What other countries will do this in the future?

China has always been very selective about what gets through the Great Firewall. But I don’t see China as being alone in this trend towards balkanization of the digital ecosystem.

India has recently blocked many Chinese apps. Russia is cracking down on foreign sources of information. The U.S. could very well grow tired of the situation under which Chinese app publishers make billions in America, but American publishers can’t access the Chinese market. Just this year we saw that 17 of the top 52 app publishers on the planet are based in China, surpassing the United States for the first time ever.

That list includes:

  • Tencent
  • ByteDance (TikTok)
  • NetEase
  • miHoYo
  • 37 Entertainment
  • Alibaba
  • Lilith
  • Baidu
  • Long Tech Network
  • Ultrapower
  • Zhejiang Century
  • G-bits

Most likely, we’ll see more of this division of cyberspace along real-world country lines, and it will be an additional headache for app developers who used to be able to write once and publish everywhere.

It’s also a risk factor for app publishers in any country to consider when taking their apps to foreign markets.

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