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Apple removed 805 apps in China in 2018 and 2019, according to the company’s transparency report. Picture: Shutterstock

Apple removes RSS readers Fiery Feeds and Reeder from the iOS App Store in China in a new crackdown from censors

  • The new removals come three years after Apple removed popular RSS readers Feedly and Inoreader from the Chinese App Store
  • Apple has been repeatedly called out for complying with the Chinese government’s censorship requests
More RSS apps are disappearing from Apple’s App Store in China in a new crackdown on feed readers. Apple removed two additional apps that pull content from RSS feeds, allowing Chinese users to access articles that might normally be blocked by the country’s Great Firewall.

Fiery Feeds and Reeder both acknowledged on Twitter that their iOS apps had been removed in the country. They cited a 2017 tweet by Inoreader, another popular RSS service, which posted a letter from Apple saying its app was removed in China because it included content that is illegal in the country. Inoreader said the entire service was blocked in April this year.

RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is a popular way of pulling updates from news sites, blogs and other content producers and compiling it all in one place. The popularity of RSS started to decline as people began spending more time on social media.

In China, though, RSS readers still provide some people with a unique service: avoiding the Great Firewall. Some cloud-based RSS readers store the content on their own servers, which might not be blocked in China.

The story of China’s Great Firewall, the world’s most sophisticated censorship system

Despite its utility, the use of RSS feeds was never widely adopted in China. This is partly because China has been cracking down on RSS feeds at least since 2007, a few years after the Great Firewall got up and running. Fiery Feeds only had about 1,000 monthly active users in China before the iOS app was removed this week, TechCrunch reported.

The few users who did rely on RSS in China are now lamenting the new crackdown.

“It’s been a while since Feedly was blocked,” one person posted on the microblogging site Weibo, referencing another RSS service that is no longer available on the App Store in China. “It’s not surprising that this happened. Sigh.”

Apple has been repeatedly criticised for capitulating to the Chinese government by complying with censorship requests. The company has removed VPN apps, which let users bypass the Great Firewall, and news apps that include The New York Times and Quartz . Apple also removed a map app in Hong Kong that tracked protest activities.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Six times Apple gave in to China

It is not clear why Fiery Feeds and Reeder are just being removed now, three years after Feedly and Inoreader got the same treatment. Many Chinese RSS apps remain in the store. And some apps like NetNewsWire can store content locally without relying on cloud services. This could keep users from circumventing the Great Firewall unless pulling from feeds on unblocked websites.

NetNewsWire, an open-source reader for macOS and iOS, offers optional syncing through Feedbin and Feedly, similar to how Reeder works. But NetNewsWire said on Twitter that it has not been affected, “at least so far.”

“It’s completely unclear what explains the three-year gap here, and the entire policy makes no sense,” tech blogger John Gruber wrote on his site Daring Fireball. “Why ban feed readers but not web browsers? At a technical level, feed readers are just web browsers for RSS feeds. China’s Great Firewall should block feeds (and centralised feed aggregating sources) just as easily as it blocks websites.”

Censorship rules in China have always been vague and enforcement is opaque. But in some ways, targeting RSS apps looks consistent with past policies. The fact that The New York Times and Quartz websites were already blocked in China did not stop the government from telling Apple to remove the apps.

Whatever the reason for the timing, Gruber suggests that it is best not to think about it.

“I suppose there’s not much point looking for sense in this decision,” he wrote. “China is going to China.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: More RSS news readers removed by Apple