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Apple demands Telegram remove posts related to Belarus protests, controversy ensues

Apple is embroiled in yet another App Store controversy after it demanded that Telegram remove content related to the ongoing political scandal in Belarus.

Outlined by Telegram CEO Pavel Durov in a post to his own platform, the controversy lies not only in what Apple requested, but also how it structured the demand under App Store guidelines.

On Oct. 8, Durov said Apple requested Telegram shut down three content channels run by pro-democracy protestors. Owners of the channels used Telegram's public forum feature to disseminate information on resistance efforts targeting Belarusian President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who is in a standoff with opponents after running a rigged election in September.

Uprisings in the country have been met with violence and Lukashenko this week threatened to use lethal weapons against protestors. The Belarusian president is currently facing down the specter of European Union sanctions if he does not agree to new elections, according to The New York Times.

Apple waded into the fray by declaring certain posts in violation of App Store rules. The company was concerned that publishing the personal information of law enforcement officials could incite violence, Durov said.

"I think this situation is not black and white and would rather leave the channels be, but typically Apple doesn't offer much choice for apps like Telegram in such situations," Durov wrote in a post dated Oct. 8. "Unfortunately, I assume these channels will end up getting blocked on iOS, but remain available on other platforms."

Apple later told Gazeta that it did not want to close the channels, but instead sought the removal of specific posts "disclosing personal information." Durov countered, saying the three accounts in question "consist entirely of personal information of violent oppressors and those who helped rig the elections," concluding that the removal of offending posts effectively equates to shutting down those channels.

As noted by Daring Fireball's John Gruber on Wednesday, the Telegram controversy goes beyond App Store rules and raises questions as to how Apple enforces developer regulations.

In a Telegram post on Oct. 9, Durov points to policies that disallow developers from explaining App Store guidelines to customers.

"Previously, when removing posts at Apple's request, Telegram replaced those posts with a notice that cited the exact rule limiting such content for iOS users," he wrote. "However, Apple reached out to us a while ago and said our app is not allowed to show users such notices because they were "irrelevant"." (Emphasis in original)

Apple caught flak for leveling identical restrictions on Facebook in August. At the time, the social network wanted to issue a transparency notice informing users that it would not be able to roll out a paid event tool on iOS due to the App Store's customary 30% fee. Apple rejected the announcement as "irrelevant."

"I strongly disagree with Apple's definition of "irrelevant". I think the reason certain content was censored or why the price is 30% higher is the opposite of irrelevant," Durov said.

Telegram has butted heads with Apple in the past. In 2018, the app was temporarily banned from the App Store for hosting child pornography. More recently, Durov in July filed an antitrust complaint with the European Commission over App Store fees and platform control.