BEIJING/HONG KONG (REUTERS, NYTIMES) - Apple says it is removing virtual private network (VPN) services from its app store in China, drawing criticism from VPN service providers, who accuse the US tech giant of bowing to pressure from Beijing cyber regulators.
VPNs allow users to bypass China’s so-called “Great Firewall” aimed at restricting access to overseas sites.
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 (July 30), 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.
"We have been required to remove some VPN apps in China that do not meet the new regulations," the company said. "These apps remain available in all other markets where they do business."
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.
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".
“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,” ExpressVPN said in a statement.
A search Saturday by The New York Times 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.
But according to Reuters, China users with billing addresses in other countries will still be able to access VPN apps from other branches of the App Store. A number of VPN apps were still accessible on the China App store on Saturday, Reuters said.
Sunday Yokubaitis, president of Golden Frog, a company that makes privacy and security software including VyprVPN, said its software, too, had been taken down from the app store.
"We gladly filed an amicus brief in support of Apple in their backdoor encryption battle with the FBI," he said, "so we are extremely disappointed that Apple has bowed to pressure from China to remove VPN apps without citing any Chinese law or regulation that makes VPN illegal."
He added: "We view access to Internet in China as a human rights issue, and I would expect Apple to value human rights over profits."
Yokubaitis told Reuters Golden Frog will file an appeal to Apple over the ban.
Apple is in the middle of a localisation drive in China, and named a new managing director for the region – a new role – this month.
It is also establishing a data centre with a local partner in the southwestern province of Guizhou to comply with new Chinese cloud storage regulations.
VPN providers say that while the apps are not available on the store, users are still able to manually install them using VPN support built into Apple’s operating system.