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How Apple's app review process works for the App Store

Phil Schiller, senior vice president of global marketing at Apple Inc., speaks at an Apple event at the Steve Jobs Theater at Apple Park on September 12, 2018 in Cupertino, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

An executive board led by Apple marketing SVP Phil Schiller meets every week to discuss controversial apps or other iPhone software programs that may violate Apple's App Store guidelines, people familiar with the matter told CNBC. board, "or ERB, sets policy for Apple's Worldwide Developer Relations Department, which is often called App Review. ERB and Schiller made the decision to ban the Infowars app from the App Store for [

Inside the app review team, Apple employees manually screen every single iPhone app before they become available for download on Apple's platforms, the people said. Apple has recently opened new App Review offices in Cork, Ireland, and Shanghai, China, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The app review process has grown in importance as Apple increasingly emphasizes its App Store services as a source of revenue and iPhone security as a key selling point. Additionally, Apple's platform is drawing new scrutiny, with politicians and regulators taking a more skeptical look at the power of big tech companies. In the United States, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren says that Apple competes with apps on its own platform. Spotify, the streaming music service that competes with Apple Music, has filed a competition complaint with the EU. And Apple's own developers for years have chafed under App Review's sometimes arbitrary rejections and boilerplate feedback

Last month, Apple published a new webpage explaining the principles that govern the App Store as well as the most common reasons for rejection to show an increased level of transparency over previous years

"We're proud of the store we've built and the way we've built it," said Apple on the page

"We've created the App Store with two goals in mind: it's a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps, and a great business opportunity for all developers," he continued.

Apple declined to comment on its app review process

How the process works

Any app or update that runs on an iPhone needs a stamp of approval from a human being to be distributed on Apple's App Store.

Unlike content moderators at Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook or YouTube that rely on tens of thousands of contractors, Apple's app reviewers work for Apple , people familiar with the process said. They're paid hourly, have employee badges and get Apple benefits such as health care. Everyone starts out reviewing iPhone apps, and as reviewers become more senior, they are trained to evaluate apps with in-app purchases, subscriptions, Apple Watch and Apple TV

The department has over 300 reviewers and is based on a pair of offices in Sunnyvale, California ̵

1; not Apple's famous Apple Park campus or its older headquarters, Infinite Loop, people familiar with the offices said. Lots of reviewers are fluent in non-English languages, and some teams in the division are specialized in individual languages.

App Review is organized under the umbrella marketing at Apple and has always been, even before Schiller took over the largest App Store marketing and product departments in late 2015. Although Schiller is involved in decision -making through the ERB, people who worked at the App Review Office said that he rarely ever visits the office where the review takes place

According to people familiar with the review app operations, day-to-day supervision mainly falls to and VP at Apple, Ron Okamoto, and a director who joined Apple when it bought TestFlight in 2015, who CNBC is not naming because of security reasons. The app's review was developed shortly after the iPhone App Store was launched in 2008. Apple's two goals for the department, according to a response to the FCC in 2009 and the webpage published earlier this year, is to create a store where customers can be confident that the apps are safe, and provide a level playing field for developers to reach customers, in return for 15% to 30% cut sales

Accept , reject or hold

Reviewers "claim" and a batch of apps through a web portal on a Mac desktop, called App Claim, then they often examine the app on a connected iPad, even if it's an iPhone app, for reviewers to evaluate Watch and TV apps on those devices, people familiar with the process said. (19659002) Reviewers compare the app to Apple's public App Store guidelines including making sure it runs without crashing and it's not full of illegal content. Then the reviewers make a call to accept, reject or hold the app. Most reviewers spend only a few minutes per app, but many apps are simple and only require a short period to evaluate, the people said.

Reviewers have daily apps between 50 and 100 apps, and the number of apps any individual reviewer gets through a clock is tracked by a software called Watchtower, according to screenshots seen by CNBC.

People who worked at App Review said that the working days could be long and that there were times, such as ahead of Apple's annual release of its new version of iOS, when app developers update their apps so they are compatible

One state that is closely tracked at App Review is called SLA, which stands for service-level agreement. Apple aims for 50% of apps to be reviewed within 24 to 48 hours. When it's a big queue of apps, the SLA percentage drops, according to reviewers who worked at Apple

On July 30 last year, SLA fell to 6%, according to a staff email. "Until we catch up, we're opening up 12-hour days," according to the email seen by CNBC. "

Reviewers generally do not make horrific or illegal content on a regular basis, although one reviewer said that one time they found child pornography in a pending app .

The bigger concern is that developers can get angry that their livelihood can be threatened by a prolonged review process, and some reviewers would like to share it with the FBI, the reviewer said.

Another reviewer said that sometimes they approve what looks like a valid app, but changes can be made on the developer's server to make it a scammy app that violates Apple's guidelines.

Forty percent of apps or updates submitted to Apple are rejected, the company says. Many of those are subsequently approved after minor changes, but others have a more difficult decision for App Review.

Developers who disagree with a decision made by App Review can appeal to a board called Board App Review, from a lower-level reviewer, and is partly comprised of reviewers with good track records, people who worked as reviewers said.

The vast majority of iPhone apps are rejected for common reasons – they are scammy, or they have bugs or they violate user privacy. A lot of rejected apps are related to a Chinese gambling scam called "PK10," or other obviously fraudulent submissions, according to people familiar with the process.

But some rejections fall into gray areas in Apple's policies, or they are publicly sensitive, and those go to the ERB, which includes Schiller and other VPs with responsibilities at the App Store, the people who worked at. The executive review board has been meeting since 2009, according to Apple's letter to the FCC

The apps handled by the ERB are sometimes apps that could be dangerous for Apple in terms of publicity, or "oh s —" apps , according to a person familiar with the process

One notable app that was handled at ERB last year was the Infowars app, according to people familiar with the situation. The conspiracy theory-broadcasting app was banned last year because it published videos that included threats to reporters. The App Review team had a staff meeting after that decision was made last year, and a reviewer said.

When a decision is overturned on appeal or a rejection needs to be explained, someone at Apple calls the developer, reviewers who worked at Apple said. Apple says it makes 1,000 calls per week to developers. Many developers, especially those who have gained public attention for their complaints about App Review, are contacted by a longtime Apple veteran who identifies himself as "Bill," who does not offer a last name, and who CNBC is not identifying due to security

Companies like Spotify or Netflix do not get special treatment, one reviewer said, with the same App Review process and rules applied to their apps, despite their size. For example, Bill called Spotify when an update was rejected because it was emailing customers asking them to pay Spotify directly to circumvent Apple's cut, according to a person familiar with the situation

Bill also made calls related to parental control apps that

Finally, at Apple, all apps are reviewed by actual Apple employees, and decisions go all the way up the chain to Schiller, the reviewers said.

Bill was recorded making an appeal in 2016 by an angry developer. In the recording, Bill asks the developer, "Are you familiar with Phil? This is coming from Phil Schiller."

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