Over the weekend, Apple pulled a number of VPNs from its mainland China App Store, strengthening fears of a looming VPN crackdown in China, while also opening the Silicon Valley company up to criticism for bowing to pressure from Chinese censors.
ExpressVPN, one of the most popular services that foreigners in China use to get over the country’s Great Firewall, said on Saturday that it had received a notice from Apple that its software had been removed from the Chinese app store because it “includes content that is illegal in China, which is not in compliance with the App Store review guidelines.”
The British Virgin Island-based VPN service, which describes itself as a “digital rights advocate,” has spoken out against Apple’s decision to ban its app, casting the move as a threat to free speech and civil liberties.
“It represents the most drastic measure the Chinese government has taken to block the use of VPNs to date, and we are troubled to see Apple aiding China’s censorship efforts,” ExpressVPN wrote on a blog post on its site.
Other VPN providers that have had their services pulled from the App Store include VyprVPN and StarVPN. Sunday Yokubaitis, president of Golden Frog which oversees VyprVPN, has also expressed his disappointment, telling Reuters on Sunday that “We view access to internet in China as a human rights issue and I would expect Apple to value human rights over profit.”
Meanwhile, Apple confirmed on Sunday that it had removed the apps from its store because they did no comply with local laws, including that VPN services in China must be based inside the country and sanctioned by the government.
Back in January, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced a crackdown against unauthorized VPNs used to conduct business across borders. Then, earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that China was planning to ban all personal VPNs by next February.
The MIIT has since denied this Bloomberg report, emphasizing that the target of their crackdown is businesses, not individuals, but that has done little to quell the fears of foreigners living in China with VPN services being shut down ahead of an extremely significant Communist Party congress in Beijing later this year.
Meanwhile, this appears to be yet another example of Apple’s newfound willingness to bend to the will of Chinese authorities. Last year, Apple’s Chinese market share fell for the first time as the American company was overtaken by low-cost domestic competitors as it also became the target of a number of frivolous lawsuits in Chinese courts. That rough year has apparently caused Tim Cook to rethink his plan for doing business in China. Earlier this month, Apple announced that it would accede to the wishes of Chinese officials and set up an iCloud data center on the mainland.
TechCrunch writes that all this acquiescing to Beijing could create problems back at home for the tech company which claims to be a proponent of user privacy. “How will Apple now argue against the Trump administration effectively, after cow-towing to China in this fashion?” writes tech editor Mike Butcher.
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