Apple Removes Apps that Bypass China’s Censors

chinas censors

This post was originally published on Financial Times.

Apple has removed from its Chinese app store applications that enable users to bypass China’s “Great Firewall”, in a move that developers have condemned as “censorship”.

The Silicon Valley company has withdrawn virtual private network (VPN) apps from the store, as it pulls all software that do not comply with local law, even if the makers are based outside the country.

VPNs allow users to access content banned by Chinese censors to control access to information online. This has, in effect, created a “Chinese internet”, without many western social media or search engine sites.

ExpressVPN posted a letter it had received from Apple online, notifying the company that its application had been removed from the Chinese app store “because it includes content that is illegal in China”.

The company, which describes itself as a “digital rights advocate”, said it was “dismayed” that Apple had decided to “side with censorship”.

“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 in a blog post.

Apple said: “Earlier this year China’s ministry of industry and information technology announced that all developers offering VPNs must obtain a licence from the government. We have been required to remove some VPN apps in China that do not meet the new regulations. These apps remain available in all other markets where they do business.”

Meanwhile, on Sunday Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning proxies and VPNs that allow users to bypass restrictions on banned sites.

Golden Frog, a Switzerland-based VPN maker, said it was told by Apple on Friday that its VyprVPN app had also been removed for legal reasons, in a post it distributed in a tweet marked “#censorship”. It said if users had given Apple a billing address outside China, they were still able to download the app.

Some VPN apps remain in the store.

Apple’s decision to remove the VPN providers comes shortly after it opened its first iCloud data centre on the Chinese mainland.

Personal online information belonging to Chinese owners of iPhones and iPads, including private messages and photos, is now stored within the country, after Beijing tightened cyber security rules. The move reflected the concessions that foreign multinationals are making to access the world’s largest mobile market.

Apple has positioned itself as a privacy advocate, battling with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the US by refusing to hack into an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino killers. Apple also said last year that it had rejected a request from the Chinese government to hand over the source code for its operating system. Armed with the source code, it would have been easier to find flaws in the security of iOS.

Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked files on mass surveillance, said Apple had done “much good” for privacy in recent years. But he compared aiding Chinese censorship with “corporate collaboration with the apartheid regime”.

In Russia the new law, which goes into effect on November 1, allows censors to block sites offering VPN and proxy services, as well as those explaining how to evade the blocks. Russian citizens are not directly banned from using the services. It was not immediately clear how Russia’s censors would block VPN apps from sale, as in China, or use other methods.

Another law signed on Saturday requires operators of messaging services to identify users by phone numbers and block them if ordered to do so by Russian authorities.

Russia has passed a series of restrictive measures against its once-vibrant web since Mr Putin, who has said that the internet is a “CIA project”, began cracking down on dissent in 2012. But implementation is often far more scattershot, selective and ineffective than in China, which has more extensive censorship infrastructure.

This post was originally published on Financial Times.