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Apple’s decision to pull Damus from China App Store was ‘expected’

Apple’s recent removal of Damus, a decentralised social media platform built on an open protocol backed by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, from its China App Store for violating domestic cybersecurity laws came as no surprise at all, according to the developer behind the new app’s technology.

“I think it was to be expected, although it didn’t occur to me because I wasn’t actively aware of the extent of the Great Firewall,” the creator of the internet open protocol Nostr, who goes by the handle “fiatjaf” on social media, said in an interview via Telegram.

Damus, built on the Nostr protocol that is touted as capable of creating a censorship-resistant global social network, was pulled from the App Store on February 3 based on a directive from internet watchdog the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), according to a Twitter post by Damus, just two days after the app’s global launch. “That was fast,” Damus said in its post.

The app “includes content that is illegal in China”, according to the CAC’s directive to the App Store cited in Damus’ post. The CAC said the app violated the provisions on “the Security Assessment of Internet-based Information Services with Attribute of Public Opinions or Capable of Social Mobilisation”.

Because the app is built on an open internet protocol, creating a user account on Damus does not require a phone number, email or name, and all private messaging is encrypted, according to its website. Damus said all messages are distributed via decentralised relay servers and that “there is no platform that can ban or censor” users, who have control of their data.

An Android Nostr app named Amethyst was also launched on February 1 on the Google Play Store, which is not accessible in mainland China. A search on local Android app stores, including those run by Xiaomi and Huawei Technologies Co, did not yield any results.

The Nostr protocol, which is technically defined as “a decentralised network based on cryptographic keypairs and that is not peer-to-peer”, reflects demand in China and elsewhere around the globe for technology that enables unfettered social networking at a time when censorship issues are continuing to spread.

An unrestricted microblogging site would provide users on the mainland with an alternative to virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass information controls from China’s Great Firewall. Damus was ranked 21st among all social iOS apps in China on February 2, up 54 places from the previous day, according to mobile analytics platform

On being barred from China’s app market, fiatjaf said the expectation was that this “would only happen when we had many more people involved to try to deal with these issues in a spontaneous way, each acting according to its own”.

“My naive understanding at this point is that as long as the Great Firewall operates in a ‘blacklist’ manner and not on a ‘whitelist’ way, doors can be open in the form of new relays, at least for a while until they are blocked,” fiatjaf said. “That should be good enough. Hopefully at least a small improvement over the current situation.”

Still, more user education is needed, according to the Nostr creator.

“Nostr clients are empowering the users to understand what relays are and how to interact with them,” fiatjaf said. “Relays shouldn’t be second-class citizens in the protocol, hidden in an ‘advanced settings’ menu no one ever clicks. They must be an integral part of the experience, such that users are able to circumvent the blocks and other issues and move faster than the governments and other attackers.”

A mainland Damus user, who goes by the pseudonym “Don”, said the app remains locally accessible, although downloads for new users has been banned.

Don indicated that the app needs to improve its search function. “It is not very convenient to do a targeted search for a person or institution,” he said.

Mastodon, another decentralised social media platform that was launched in 2017, is not accessible without a VPN, according to Don, who also uses this popular alternative to Twitter. Many widely used Mastodon servers, especially those that cater to Chinese users, are blocked by the Great Firewall.

Notwithstanding such issues, Mastodon remains popular with some Chinese social media users seeking an uncensored outlet. With every hot political issue last year – whether it was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the assassination of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe or then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan – the narrative among Chinese Mastodon users has run counter to what was typically found on platforms like Weibo and WeChat. South China Morning Post

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