Apple, complying with what it said was a request from Chinese authorities, removed news apps created by The New York Times from its app store in China late last month.
The move limits access to one of the few remaining channels for readers in mainland China to read The Times without resorting to special software. The government began blocking The Times’ websites in 2012, after a series of articles on the wealth amassed by the family of Wen Jiabao, who was then prime minister, but it had struggled in recent months to prevent readers from using the Chinese-language app.
Apple removed both the English-language and Chinese-language apps from the iTunes store in China on Dec. 23. Apps from other international publications, including The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, were still available in the app store.
“For some time now the New York Times app has not been permitted to display content to most users in China and we have been informed that the app is in violation of local regulations,” Fred Sainz, an Apple spokesman, said of the Times apps. “As a result, the app must be taken down off the China App Store. When this situation changes, the App Store will once again offer the New York Times app for download in China.”
Sainz declined to comment on what local regulations the Times apps were said to have violated, who had contacted Apple and when, and whether a court order or other legal document had been presented.
China’s main internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, did not respond to faxed questions.
The Times bureau in Beijing said it had not been contacted by the Chinese government about the matter. A Times spokeswoman in New York, Eileen Murphy, said the company had asked Apple to reconsider its decision.
“The request by the Chinese authorities to remove our apps is part of their wider attempt to prevent readers in China from accessing independent news coverage by The New York Times of that country, coverage which is no different from the journalism we do about every other country in the world,” Murphy said in a statement.
The request appears to have been made under regulations released in June 2016 called Provisions on the Administration of Mobile Internet Application Information Services.
The regulations say apps cannot “engage in activities prohibited by laws and regulations such as endangering national security, disrupting social order and violating the legitimate rights and interests of others.” The cyberspace administration says on its website that apps also cannot publish “prohibited” information.
The ruling Communist Party tightly controls media inside China and employs one of the world’s most sophisticated systems of internet censorship. Chinese law prohibits the publication of “harmful information” online, and officials often take action without legal procedures or court orders against material they deem objectionable.
Apple has previously removed other, less prominent media apps from its China store. It is unclear how the company evaluates requests from Beijing to take down apps and whether it ever resists them.
Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, has said that the company complies with all local laws. While in early 2016 Apple resisted a court request in the United States for it to help federal officials unlock an iPhone for a criminal investigation, Cook said he would obey whatever order the court ultimately handed down. In the end, the government was able to unlock the device without Apple’s help and the case was dropped.
Farzana Aslam, associate director of the Center for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong, noted that in matters involving customer privacy, Apple requires governments to submit subpoenas, search warrants or other legal documents.
“Maybe in the end they have to do it, but I think there’s something to be said about standing up for what you believe in and purporting to put principle before profit in a country like China, to show that actually there is this tension there,” Aslam said. “It’s not as simple as, ‘Because we operate in your jurisdiction, we’ll do anything you ask of us.’”
She added that it was “very worrying” that Apple had not disclosed what laws the authorities said were violated, making it difficult for The Times and other publishers to file an appeal or challenge the government’s requests.
In the weeks leading up to the withdrawal of the Times apps, The Times was working on various articles related to the Chinese government. One of them, posted online on Dec. 29, revealed the billions of dollars in hidden perks and subsidies that the Chinese government provides to the world’s biggest iPhone factory. China is also one of Apple’s largest iPhone markets, though sales in that region have slowed.
On Dec. 23, David Barboza, a Times reporter, spoke with members of Apple’s media team about the article. Barboza had previously been in touch with the iPhone factory owner, Foxconn. He had also contacted the Chinese government as part of his reporting.
Later that day, a separate team from Apple informed The Times that the apps would be removed, Murphy said.
In another article, published on Dec. 22 as a post on its Sinosphere blog, The Times described an anti-Western internet video that had been widely promoted by Chinese public security offices.
The Times news apps remain available in Apple’s app stores for other countries, as well as the Hong Kong and Taiwan stores, but people must have a credit card with a billing address outside mainland China to download them. The Times crossword puzzle and virtual reality apps remain available throughout China.
When the Chinese government began blocking the Times websites in 2012, it also prevented users with Times apps from downloading new content.
But readers in China can still gain access to The Times using software that circumvents the government’s firewall. And in July 2015, The Times released a new version of its Chinese-language app that adopted a different method for retrieving articles, one that the government appeared unable to stop.
Apple’s decision to remove the app from its China store should not affect those who have already installed it. But users in China will not be able to download new releases unless they use another region’s iTunes store.
The Times discovered after being blocked in 2012 that hackers with possible ties to the Chinese military had targeted the newspaper’s computer systems and that the attacks coincided with the reporting for that Times investigation.
Foreign tech companies face increasing pressure from government authorities in China. In April, Apple’s iBooks Store and iTunes Movies were shut down in the country, just six months after they were introduced there.
Mark Natkin, the Beijing-based managing director of Marbridge Consulting, who advises American technology firms in China, said he did not think any such company entering the Chinese market could “ever fully comprehend how challenging it’s going to be.”
Natkin said that Apple has a certain amount of leverage against the Chinese government in terms of the total amount of jobs created but that “the technology gap has started to close.”