Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc., speaks during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California, U.S., on Monday, June 4, 2018.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Apple is cracking down on apps related to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak that aren’t from recognized institutions like governments or hospitals, iPhone developers told CNBC.
Four independent developers told CNBC that Apple rejected their apps, which would allow people to see stats about which countries have confirmed cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Some of these apps used public data from reliable sources like the World Health Organization (WHO) to create dashboards or live maps. Some developers asked not to be named to avoid further complications with Apple’s review process.
One developer said an Apple employee explained over the phone that anything related to the coronavirus must be released by an official health organization or government. Another developer got a written response that “apps with information about current medical information need to be submitted by a recognized institution,” according to a screenshot seen by CNBC.
Apple has been specifically evaluating coronavirus apps to prevent the spread of misinformation. It looks at both where the health data comes from and whether the developers represent organizations that users can trust to publish accurate data, like governments or health-focused organizations, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The restriction appears to be working, as search results show few apps about the outbreak and no obvious spam. But it could also reduce the availability of software that would enable iPhone users to track the outbreak, and raise fairness questions about who is allowed to develop apps for iPhones.
The move comes as big tech companies have grappled with the effects of misinformation related to the coronavirus outbreak on their platforms. Last month, Amazon warned sellers that it would take down listings for products that claim to kill coronavirus. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on Tuesday that he’s “focused on making sure everyone can access credible and accurate information” about the outbreak and is removing content with conspiracy theories. Google presents information from the World Health Organization at the top of Google searches about the coronavirus in a special module and has banned ads for anti-coronavirus products.
“Right now the technology industry is working very hard to ensure the platforms are not being used to provide people with false or, even worse, dangerous information about the coronavirus,” said Morgan Reed, president of the App Association, an industry group that represents app developers. “We are seeing significant pressure inside and outside to halt applications and advertisements before they harm citizens.”
A search for “coronavirus” on the App Store on Wednesday in the United States revealed mostly benign results.
The top result was a Portuguese-language app about the outbreak published by the Brazilian government. Below that was an unrelated wallpaper app, a game that looks similar to top-grossing epidemic game Plague Inc, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s app, the Epoch Times, and an app with COVID-19 information published by Unbound, a developer of medical apps.
The top result for “COVID 19” is a “virus tracker” from a developer called Healthlynked with WHO figures and maps charting where confirmed cases have been. It’s currently No. 2. for medical apps on Apple’s app store in the United States. Below that is the Unbound app and several Chinese-language apps.
An opaque process
App Review, the department inside Apple that manually screens every single iPhone app before they become available to download on Apple’s platforms, relies on a document called the App Store Review Guidelines to justify their decisions to software companies about what’s allowed on iPhones.
Developers who had coronavirus apps rejected by Apple said that reviewers cited a guideline numbered 5.2.1, which says that “apps should be submitted by the person or legal entity that owns or has licensed the intellectual property and other relevant rights.”
Zachary Shakked, who makes apps to help small businesses manage social media accounts, said although he was sympathetic to Apple’s need to prevent misinformation, he had published apps in the past with high ratings and hundreds of thousands of downloads, and suggested a tiered system to separate spammers or misinformation from vetted developers.
An updated policy published by Apple on Wednesday has a new item, 5.1.1.ix, which is close to what developers said they were told. Apps in “highly-regulated” fields like healthcare, financial services, or air travel need to be submitted by a “legal entity that provides the services, and not by an individual developer.”
Apple’s App Store policies have drawn criticism for being inscrutable, and some competitors have claimed Apple has too much power given that the App Store is the only way to distribute software for iPhones to the public.
Spotify CEO Daniel Ek wrote in 2019 that App Store rules “purposely limit choice and stifle innovation at the expense of the user experience” and filed a complaint with the EU.
At a congressional hearing in January, the general counsel of Tile, which makes an app for the App Store, testified that Apple “can change the rules when it wants.” Basecamp founder David Heinemeier Hansson said at the same hearing that every “application maker using the App Store lives in fear that their application is denied” and that the appeals process would make “Kafka blush.”
Google cracking down as well
Google Play, Google’s Android app store, has a rule against apps that “capitalize on a natural disaster” or “atrocity” or appears to “profit from a tragic event with no discernible benefit to the victims.” On Thursday, a search for “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” returned no results on Google’s app store in the United States, an intentional move from Google to prevent misinformation.
Google Play also published a website called “Coronavirus: Stay informed” with suggested apps, including software from the CDC, Red Cross, and Twitter.
Google didn’t have a comment for this story.
Some popular Android apps related to the coronavirus are not available for iPhones. On Wednesday, a top free Android app in South Korea, which has over 3,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, was a mapping app that alerts users when they have been within 100 meters of where a confirmed coronavirus case had been.
The app, Corona 100m, is not published by a public health source and has at least 1 million downloads, according to its Google Play listing. It’s not available for iPhone and the developer didn’t immediately return an email asking if there were plans to release it for Apple’s App Store.