15 Controversial Apps That Were Banned from Apple’s App Store

Man hand with Apple Watch holding iPhone

You can download tons of apps from the iOS App Store, but Apple has banned plenty of apps from its platform, too | iStock.com/Prykhodov

We’re all at least a little bit fascinated by media that’s been banned by someone in a position of authority. We love learning about why classic books have been banned (often for ridiculous reasons). We’re interested in thinking back to a time when certain classic rock-and-roll songs were widely prohibited by radio stations and record stores. And we also like knowing the stories behind the American movies that have been banned abroad.

The rise of smartphones has brought us new forms of media, too. So an interesting new kind of banned media to check out is the list of apps that have gotten banned from the App Store. Apple maintains an extensive set of guidelines on the kinds of apps that developers can list in the App Store, so it has the final say over which apps you can download on your iPhone or iPad. And it can ban the ones that it just doesn’t approve of.

Apple has booted apps from its platform for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, banned apps were offensive. Other times, they violated various guidelines that Apple had set for developers. Some banned apps encouraged users to take part in dangerous behavior. And other times, apps that Apple has banned were simply ridiculous.

As the company explains in its submission guidelines for developers, “We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical App. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.” Read on to check out some of the more notable kinds of apps that have been banned from the App Store over the years.

1. Apps that presented “objectionable content”

An Apple iPhone 7s is seen in the upgraded Apple store

Apple has banned all kinds of apps that include what it judges to be “objectionable content” | Leon Neal/Getty Images

Over the years, Apple has banned a number of apps that seemed to violate the App Store Guidelines’ prohibition of “apps that present excessively objectionable or crude content.” One app that was banned several times was After School, a controversial social-networking app for high school students. The app enabled users to make anonymous posts — and that policy gave rise to posts that, at least according to Apple, violated its rules against apps enabling “personal attacks” or “objectionable content.” Apple has also banned a game that users referred to as a “drug-dealing simulator,” booted an insensitive game about smuggling immigrants through the desert, and removed apps containing “overtly sexual content” or nudity.

2. Apps that Apple (or the internet) deemed inappropriate

A customer sets up her new iPhone 7 during the opening sale launch at an Apple store

Another subset of apps that have been banned from the App Store? Apps that Apple, or the internet, has judged inappropriate | Johannes Eisele/Getty Images

Apple has pulled many apps from the App Store for “inappropriate” content. One of the most widely-condemned of those was Rich Kids, a social network where anybody could view photos, but only those who could shell out a membership fee of 1,000 euro per month could post photos. Caitlin Dewey reports for the Washington Post that the Slovakian app “attracted a great deal of condemnation.” (A related incident? Apple’s choice to ban the I Am Rich app, which cost $999 and according to Apple, wasn’t “functional.“) Critics of Rich Kids called it “awful,” “stupid,” and “fantastically ridiculous.” And Apple responded to the criticism by banning the app from the App Store — a pattern it’s repeated over the years when the internet objected to an app the company had approved for the App Store. Case in point? Apple approved and then banned an app called Baby Shaker, which allowed users to silence a virtual baby by shaking their phone, after protests by child welfare groups.

3. Apps with religious themes that offended large groups of people

An attendee looks at the new iPad Mini during an Apple announcement at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on October 22, 2013 in San Francisco, California. The tech giant announced its new iPad Air, a new iPad mini with Retina display, OS X Mavericks and highlighted its Mac Pro. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Religious themes are tricky to deal with, and they can get an app banned from the iOS App Store | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Religious themes are sticky in any media, but it seems that’s especially true with iOS apps. As The Huffington Post reported back in 2014, Apple banned a number of apps with religious themes from its App Store. The list included titles like Me So Holy, which enabled users to paste their faces onto the bodies of religious figures, and Jew or Not Jew, which purported to inform users which celebrities and public figures were Jewish. Apple also banned iSlam Muhammad, which showed users “violent and hateful passages from the Quran that support and encourage Muslims to attack and behead anyone who does not agree with them.” It also banned an app from the Manhattan Declaration for sharing a a Christian manifesto about “the sanctity of human life and the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife.” Apple also banned an app from Exodus International that purported to “help gay men and women convert to a heterosexual life.”

4. Apps that shed some unflattering light on Apple’s supply chain

The new iPhone SE seen at Apple's headquarters

A few banned apps shed unflattering light on Apple’s supply chain or the manufacturing practices of other companies | Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Way back in 2011, Apple banned an app called Phone Story, a mini-game that Wired’s Mark Brown explains “exposes the ugly side of smartphone production.” He adds the game asked the user to “follow a new iPhone’s release from mines in the Congo, through the oppressive Foxconn factories, and to planned obsolescence in a gadget-obsessed West.” That doesn’t look so great for Apple. And it just may explain why Apple decided to boot the app from the App Store — on the pretense that its depictions of child abuse and objectionable content were good cause for its removal. A seemingly related incident? Cupertino also drew criticism about the dangerous precedent set by its choice to ban a satirical game about conditions in sweatshops. Matt Peckham reports for Time that “it’s the idea that a game intended both as educational and intelligently satirical could wind up banned that’s dangerous.”

5. Apps that tracked drone strikes or otherwise tackled uncomfortable subjects with journalism

A set of programs from famous brands of social networking

Apple doesn’t have the best history with apps that tackle tough topics through journalism | iStock.com/Prykhodov

A surprisingly specific category of apps that Apple has banned repeatedly over the years? Apps that track drone strikes. In 2012, Cupertino made headlines for banning an app called Drone+ for violating its rules against “objectionable content.” But the app didn’t show any graphic images of the aftermath of drone strikes. It just presented their locations on a map. In 2015, Apple banned another app, Metadata+, which was created by the same developer and sent out push notifications every time there was a U.S. drone strike. Apple cited its same rule against “excessively crude or objectionable content” in removing the app. Some journalists drew parallels between Apple’s censorship of the apps tracking drone strikes and its choice earlier in 2015 to ban a virtual reality app that showed users the scene of Michael Brown’s fatal shooting in Ferguson, and to censor educational apps that contained the Confederate flag.

6. Apps that raised privacy issues — or were just plain creepy

Female hands holding new iPhone 6s

Apple has banned a variety of apps that have creepy functionality or posed privacy risks | iStock.com/RossHelen

Over the years, Apple has banned a number of apps that raised significant privacy issues. Among them were Girls Around Me, an app that The New York Times’ Nick Bilton characterizes as “an app that takes creepy to a new level.” The title used Foursquare to determine the user’s location and then scanned for women who had recently checked in in the area. Another creepy app Apple pulled from the App Store? Famous, which enabled users to assign numerical values to other people. As the Verge’s Nick Statt reports, Famous started out as Stolen, a game that “attracted significant controversy because users could ‘purchase’ people without their consent.”

7. Apps that accessed users’ personal information

A customer takes a selfie with a new Iphone 7 exhibited at Puerta del Sol Apple Store

Apps that access users’ personal information have been banned from the App Store | Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Apple once banned hundreds of iOS apps in a single incident. The reason why? A report from analytics service SourceDNA revealed a group of apps that were extracting users’ personal information. That included the email addresses that were associated with their Apple IDs, the serial numbers of their devices, and even the list of apps they’d installed on their phones. The apps in question had been using an SDK from Chinese advertising company Youmi, which was accessing users’ information. Apple explained, “This is a violation of our security and privacy guidelines.”

8. Apps that installed root certificates

A customer tries an Apple Inc. iPhone SE

Apps that unnecessarily installed root certificates have been booted from the App Store | Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Another privacy violation that got a bunch of apps banned from the App Store? Installing root certificates, which would have allowed the developers to view users’ encrypted traffic. Some ad blockers at the time were removed from the App Store because of the privileges granted by the root certificates, which allowed them to watch the websites you viewed while bypassing data-protection methods. As TechCrunch notes, Apple only “carefully authorizes root certificates via iOS and OS X.” The ad blockers that were removed were different from the content blockers that Apple built a framework for in iOS 9 to enable ad-blocking in Safari. The removed ad blockers blocked ads and other content inside apps by “scraping them out of your web traffic.” That arrangement requires routing your traffic through the app developer’s servers — an “app in the middle” situation that isn’t ideal.

9. Apps that bought fake App Store reviews

member of the media tries an Apple Inc. iPhone SE

Apple has repeatedly banned apps that buy fake App Store reviews that are meant to deceive users | Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

All the way back in 2009, Apple banned 1,000 apps by developer Molinker. Most of those apps were copycats of existing titles. But that wasn’t the reason that Apple booted them from the App Store. As Charlie Sorrel reports for Wired, “these rather poor applications” were consistently getting five-star reviews in the App Store. It was discovered the developer was giving out promotional codes in exchange for these five-star reviews. It wasn’t the only action that Apple has taken regarding apps that were gaming the App Store review system. In 2014, for instance, Apple started removing fake reviews.

10. Apps that were supposedly breaking rules — even if their developers disagreed

two men on their iPhones

Apple has occasionally pulled apps for violating rules that their developers didn’t even know they were breaking | S. Alemdar/Getty Images

Apple has definitely cracked down on apps it thinks are abusing App Store reviews — even when the developers behind those apps disagree. Apple made a lot of developers unhappy by banning Dash from its App Stores for iOS and Mac. The app, which had been around for years by the time it was banned, made it easy for developers to find and insert pieces of code that they use frequently. Apple said the app was removed due to evidence of App Store review manipulation — which Dash’s developer said he’d “never done.” The case sparked discussion among developers, and while it was eventually resolved, the story illustrated the risk developers take in building their livelihoods around Apple’s platform.

11. Apps that masqueraded as existing titles

an iPhone in a box

Apple does its best to weed out the copycat apps that are masquerading as popular services or platforms | Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

Throughout the years, Apple has repeatedly banned copycat apps that masqueraded as well-known titles in an attempt to deceive users. At the end of 2016, for instance, Apple removed hundreds of fake shopping apps that tried to trick gullible buyers. But in the process, it found that developers have grown increasingly creative in finding ways to get their fake apps around the stringent app review process — which doesn’t make it easy to stay on top of all of the fake apps in the App Store.

12. Apps that offered tethering capabilities

iPhone 6 Plus

Apple doesn’t look kindly on apps that try to circumvent carriers’ tethering charges | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Your iPhone’s tethering or mobile hotspot functionality enables you to use your data plan to connect to the internet on your Mac or PC. Lex Friedman reported for MacWorld in 2011 that Apple approved and then quickly pulled an app called iTether, which enabled users to circumvent the tethering fees assessed by their carrier. Tethering apps the company banned in the past included Handy Light and NetShare. In the case of iTether, Apple reportedly said the app “burdens the carrier network” in explaining its decision to rescind its approval of the app.

13. Apps that served as emulators

Woman holding an iPhone 6s in her hands

Apple has consistently pulled apps that serve as emulators for platforms other than iOS | iStock.com/Prykhodov

Apple made a splash in select circles on the internet when it approved, and then shortly thereafter banned, an app called iDOS, which enabled users to run DOS — and DOS applications and games — on their iPhone or iPad. But as iPhone Hacks reports, emulator apps of all types “had a history of being booted out of the App Store.” (If you need a few examples, think Nescaline and C64.) The reason why? Apps that run unsigned code generally don’t go over so well in the App Store. And apps that try to run an entire second operating system are usually banned pretty quickly.

14. Apps that enabled users to download music and other media illegally

young woman's hand typing text message on her smartphone

Apple has repeatedly banned apps that enabled users to illegally download music, movies, and other media | iStock.com/Ridofranz

Apple has banned many music-downloading apps from the App Store, including some that enabled users to download files from third-party file-sharing services. MacRumors reported of the crackdown in 2014, commenting the move may have been related to an App Store revamp Apple was planning on launching alongside iOS 8. MacRumors says, “Among those changes to the App Store include an improved search algorithm, an ‘Explore’ feature to improve discoverability, app bundles, and TestFlight beta testing for developers.” Previously, in 2011, Apple made headlines for banning iControlbits, an app for the Transmission BitTorrent client.

15. Apps that offer rewards for viewing ads and sharing on social networks

Woman using smartphone at airplane

Apple has cracked down on apps that reward users for sharing them on social media or watching video ads | iStock.com/yuran-78

Also in 2014, Apple began banning apps that incentivized social sharing and ad viewing. MacRumors noted, “Providing in-game currency, extra lives, or another incentive for watching an advertisement on another App Store app is common in freemium games, but some apps with these features have begun seeing rejections from the App Store staff.” Offering incentives to share a game on social networks or rewards for watching video ads were “two highly popular monetization methods used by countless freemium apps,” including major titles that were popular at the time, including Candy Crush.

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