Apple Deletes Meta’s Threads and WhatsApp From China App Store After Government Pressure

As U.S. lawmakers aim to fast-track a ban on TikTok, the Chinese government appeared to pressure Apple into removing Meta-owned apps WhatsApp and Threads from its China App Store.

Encrypted messaging services Signal, which is often used by news reporters, and Telegram were also taken down to “comply with censorship demand,” The Wall Street Journal reported Friday.

“Apple said it was told to remove certain apps because of national security concerns, without specifying which,” the report said.

“We are obligated to follow the laws in the countries where we operate, even when we disagree,” Apple said in a statement. Meta referred a query for comment to Apple.

Together, The Journal said the messaging apps have around three billion users worldwide. In China, they can only be accessed using virtual private networks that get around the country’s “Great Firewall,” but are still commonly used, The Journal said. In late 2022, communication and social media apps including Instagram, X, Facebook and WhatsApp were key to helping to spread information and videos of protests against China’s draconian Covid rules, the report noted.

The removals were among tens of thousands of games, apps and AI-powered ChatGPT apps removed in recent years with the government the “driving force behind” them, according to AppleInsider.

But while removals are common, the latest deletions came as Congress is set to vote this weekend on banning Chinese company ByteDance’s hugely popular TikTok.

One bill that would ban the app that has more than 150 million active users in the US unless it cuts ties with its parent company already passed the House of Representatives with an overwhelming vote of 352-65 in March, but it has languished in the Senate.

A slightly revised bill is now expected to be tucked into the legislation moving forward to provide foreign aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, NBC News reported. That all but guarantees that it will become law, as President Joe Biden is not likely to veto the aid packages he has been pressing Congress to pass for months.

The House bill would create a process for the president — through the FBI and intelligence agencies — to designate certain social media applications under the control of foreign adversaries, like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, as national security threats, NBC reported.

The House is slated to vote on the aid package Saturday, with the Senate likely to take it up early next week.

“It is unfortunate that the House of Representatives is using the cover of important foreign and humanitarian assistance to once again jam through a ban bill that would trample the free speech rights of 170 million Americans, devastate 7 million businesses, and shutter a platform that contributes $24 billion to the U.S. economy, annually,” the company said in a statement posted on X as the bill was prepared. TikTok has tried to emphasize the economic benefit to its users as one of the reasons it should not be banned.

Lawmakers from both parties have said that TikTok is a national security threat. Montana already tried to ban the app, but that effort was struck down by a federal judge because it violated the Constituion and overstepped state power. Montana has appealed.

TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before Congress last year, insisting that the Chinese government does not control the company.

Among those who have reportedly said they would be interested in buying the app from ByteDance if the legislation forces a sale are former Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, “Shark Tank” panelist and investor Kevin O’Leary, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison and retail giant Walmart and former Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

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