Coverage: Apple removes VPNs from app store in China
Software made by foreign companies to help users skirt the country’s system of internet filters has vanished from Apple’s app store on the mainland.
Paul Mozur of The New York Times had the news:
One company, ExpressVPN, posted a letter it had received from Apple saying that its app had been taken down “because it includes content that is illegal in China.”
Another tweeted from its official account that its app had been removed.
A search on Saturday showed that a number of the most popular foreign virtual-private networks, also known as VPNs, which give users access to the unfiltered internet in China, were no longer accessible on the company’s app store there.
ExpressVPN wrote in its blog that the removal was “surprising and unfortunate.”
It added, “We’re disappointed in this development, as 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.”
Cate Cadell of Reuters reported that China banned VPNs not approved by the government earlier this year:
In January, Beijing passed laws seeking to ban all VPNs that are not approved by state regulators. Approved VPNs must use state network infrastructure.
In a statement on Sunday, an Apple spokeswoman confirmed it will remove apps that don’t comply with the law from its China App Store, including services based outside the country.
Beijing has shut down dozens of China-based providers and it has been targeting overseas services as it bids to tighten its control over the internet, especially ahead of the Communist Party congress in August.
While personal VPN providers have been the subject of state-led attacks in the past, this marks the first time Apple has complied with requests to scrub overseas providers from its store, a move that VPN providers say is unnecessarily supportive of China’s heightened censorship regime.
VPN provider ExpressVPN said on Saturday that it had received a notice from Apple that its software would be removed from the China App Store “because it includes content that is illegal in China”.
Jon Fingas of Engadget reported that China ramps up censorship ahead of Communist Party meetings:
The move isn’t coming out of the blue: China is holding its once-every-5-years Communist Party congress in the fall, and it tends to ramp up online censorship ahead of those gatherings to silence dissent. The government also made Apple pull the New York Times app at the start of 2017. Even so, it emphasizes how easily China can hold the tech industry over a barrel. China knows Apple and others need Chinese customers to thrive, and that means they have to remove apps even when they help protect freedom of speech.
The clampdown also illustrates the pitfalls of disallowing apps from unofficial sources. The iOS App Store is theoretically more secure, since you’re less likely to run across rogue apps hosted on sketchy websites and less-than-vigilant stores. However, it also leaves you with few practical alternatives if censors demand that an app vanishes. You still have options on Android or desktops, even if it involves a lot of effort to track down just the right program.
Update: Apple has issued a statement noting that it pulled the apps in response to Chinese rules requiring that VPN developers obtain a government license. You can read the full statement below.