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Iranians Say Apple Is Blocking Made-in-Iran Apps in Crackdown

FILE - A man uses his cellphone while walking on a sidewalk in downtown Tehran, Iran, April 18, 2018.

U.S. tech giant Apple Inc. appears to have started blocking Iranian iPhone users from using Iranian-developed apps as part of a global crackdown by the company on developers who misuse its technology.

Iranian state media, tech executives and rights activists all have reported via social media that Apple began revoking enterprise certificates from Iranian app developers on Tuesday, resulting in Iranian iPhone users being unable to use apps for daily activities such as ride-sharing and online transactions.

Apple did not respond to a VOA Persian request for comment on the Iranian reports.

But last month, an Apple spokesperson told Reuters the company is "continuously evaluating cases of misuse [of enterprise certificates] and [is] prepared to take immediate action." The spokesperson was responding to a Reuters study that found software pirates have been using the digital certificates to gain access to an Apple program that allows developers to create, under certain conditions, apps that can be downloaded outside Apple's App Store.

Streaming, game apps

Reuters said pirate developers have used the program to provide consumers with hacked versions of popular streaming music and game apps. Under Apple rules, the program is meant to be used only to create business apps for distribution within an organization and among its employees.

In January, Apple responded publicly to what it said was another misuse of its Enterprise Developer Program rules. In a statement to U.S. network CNBC, it said Facebook was distributing a data-collecting app to consumers in breach of a corporate agreement. "Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data," Apple said.

In a report published Friday, Iran's state-controlled English-language Financial Tribune newspaper linked the Apple crackdown on misuse of enterprise developer certificates to this week's reports of Iranian-developed apps being blocked. The newspaper said the "crackdown … has taken a toll on Iranian startups offering services through iOS apps." iOS is Apple's mobile operating system.

The newspaper said Apple has suspended enterprise certificates of "numerous" Iranian app developers, leading to the blocking of more than 20 locally developed apps for ride-sharing, mobile banking and shopping.

Iranian ride-sharing service Snapp posted a Thursday tweet urging Iranians to click on a link to a web page with details of how to download a new version of the app to bypass Apple restrictions.

In another tweet posted on the same day, Snapp's chief operating officer, Amirali Mohajer, accused Apple of "digital apartheid" and complying with what he called "coercive" policies of the Trump administration, which has tightened sanctions on Iran in recent years in response to perceived malign Iranian activities.

A New York Times report in August 2017 cited Apple as telling Iranian app developers that it was banning their apps from its App Store because of U.S. sanctions. It quoted an Apple message to the developers as saying: "Under U.S. sanctions regulations, the App Store cannot host, distribute or do business with apps or developers connected to certain U.S.-embargoed countries."

Harm to tech sector

The U.S.-based Center for Human Rights in Iran criticized Apple's apparent escalation of its crackdown on Iranian app developers. In a Friday report, CHRI said Apple's revocation of enterprise certificates "will not only deny Iranians access to apps providing information, services and games, it will also harm the country's tech sector, which was already struggling to operate under state-enforced anti-internet-freedom policies and sanctions."

CHRI also said it expected Iranian companies whose apps are based on iOS, such as Snapp, to lose all their iPhone customers, a development that it said would lead to people losing their jobs as well.

This article originated in VOA's Persian service.