Protesters use their phones outside an Apple store before a march in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district in August.


Photo:

anthony wallace/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Apple Inc.

removed from its digital store an app that citizens and protesters in Hong Kong used to track police activity, thrusting the tech giant deeper into the furor engulfing U.S. companies over the protests.

The removal, which Apple announced late Wednesday, followed criticism in Chinese state media of the tech giant’s decision just days earlier to approve the app, called HKmap.live.

Apple said it pulled HKmap.live because of concerns it endangered law enforcement and residents. It said Hong Kong’s Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau verified that the app was being “used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement.”

“This app violates our guidelines and local laws,” Apple said.

The app’s developer confirmed the removal on its

Twitter

account, @hkmaplive, saying it opposed the decision because there was no evidence that the app had been used to target and ambush police.

China is Apple’s second-most important market after the U.S., accounting for $52 billion in sales last year, a fifth of the company’s total. Apple has been quick to react to Chinese pressure over the years. In 2013, Chief Executive Tim Cook issued an apology to quell two weeks of criticism from state-run media that accused Apple of skirting warranties and discriminating against Chinese customers.

Apple also has deleted hundreds of apps from its mainland China app store in recent years, including removing New York Times apps in 2017, which Apple said violated local regulations. Critics have accused the company of complying with censorship to satisfy authorities in one of its most important markets. Apple has said it is obligated to comply with local laws.

Recently, Apple removed the news outlet Quartz’s app from its App Store in China. A Quartz editor said on Twitter that Apple blocked the app at the request of China, likely because of the outlet’s coverage of Hong Kong protests. Apple said it removed Quartz because Chinese authorities said it didn’t comply with local law.

Apple’s app store traditionally has enjoyed greater freedom of expression in Hong Kong than in mainland China, but the tech giant recently made another change to its software in Hong Kong, removing a digital image of the Taiwan flag from its list of emojis within iPhone keyboards in the city. China claims Taiwan, which has been ruled independently for 70 years, as part of its rightful territory. Apple said it removed the flag in accordance with Hong Kong law.

Tensions over the Hong Kong protests have embroiled other U.S. companies and institutions, most prominently the National Basketball Association, after a Houston Rockets executive tweeted support of the protests. The league initially affirmed the executive’s right to free speech but said his comments were regrettable—a response that triggered attacks from politicians on the left and right.

Controversy around HKmap.live, which denotes the presence of police with emojis of a dog, a dinosaur or a police car, has plagued Apple for the past week and underscored the difficulty facing U.S. companies caught between Western markets that sympathize with protesters and China, which has been trying to bring an end to the unrest in its territory.

Apple initially rejected the app during its review process, drawing criticism on Friday across social media in the U.S. and Europe. After the developer appealed that decision and the app was approved, Chinese state media and consumers began criticizing Apple. HKmap.live also is available in Hong Kong, and elsewhere, through the Google Play Store, which isn’t available in mainland China.

On Tuesday, a commentary in the People’s Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, condemned Apple and called the mapping app “toxic software.”

“Apple, like other companies, should be able to distinguish between right and wrong and understand that its market would only be more promising and substantial if China and Hong Kong are doing well,” the commentary said.

Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, has a commercial agreement to supply news through Apple services.

Write to Tripp Mickle at Tripp.Mickle@wsj.com and Yoko Kubota at yoko.kubota@wsj.com

Copyright ©2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

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