Apple Inc. has removed dozens of virtual private network services from its App Store in China, dealing a blow to Internet users there hoping to evade censorship to reach a host of banned sites, such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Providers of such tools, called VPNs, say the technology giant bowed to government pressure when it pulled down a reported 60 services that tunnel through China's so-called Great Firewall to access sites and applications deemed a threat to authorities such as Instagram, the New York Times and many Google properties.
"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," said VPN provider ExpressVPN in a blog post Saturday, the day the apps were taken down. "ExpressVPN strongly condemns these measures, which threaten free speech and civil liberties."
The move comes as China tightens restrictions on both Internet users and technology companies — a broader strategy to consolidate President Xi Jinping's power and counter foreign influence. The recent crackdown could also be timed to coincide with the 19th party congress next month. China typically enhances security and government control during times of political sensitivity. This month, access to Facebook's WhatsApp service was disrupted.
"The crackdowns come in waves," said Bill Bullock, chief executive of WiTopia, a U.S.-based VPN provider. "It usually happens over national holidays or [political] events. They'll flex their muscles to show they have control and then it typically subsides after a while."
VPNs provide access to blocked sites by allowing users to mask their web browsing through an unblocked server outside the Great Firewall. Outside China, the software is commonly used as a layer of security.
It's unclear how many of China's more than 700 million Internet users have accessed a VPN, many of which are provided by companies overseas. Experts had long considered VPN usage largely restricted to the educated elite, expatriates and foreign businesspeople who need the software to work with the outside world. So long as the tool wasn't adopted en masse, authorities had little to fear.
But in January, China required VPN providers to register and obtain government approval in order to operate. Apple said it had no choice but to remove all VPNs that did not comply with this law.
"We have been required to remove some VPN apps in China that do not meet the new regulations," the company said in a statement. "These apps remain available in all other markets where they do business."
Sunday Yokubaitis, president of Golden Frog, provider of the VyprVPN app, said in a blog post Friday that he received a message from Apple that his app would be removed from the China App Store because it contained illegal content.
"Golden Frog's core mission is to fight for a free and open Internet experience for users around the world, so we will file an appeal with Apple — but I am not hopeful," Yokubaitis wrote. "When it comes to their App Store Apple is the judge, jury and executor, and now it appears the Chinese government is Apple's overlord."
This is not the first time Apple has acquiesced to authorities in China, the company's second-biggest market after the U.S. It has pulled apps from its China app store that mention the Dalai Lama and ethnic Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer. Apple also removed the New York Times app this year and disabled its news app in China in 2015.
Earlier this month, Apple said it would build its first data center in China to speed up cloud services for customers and comply with new cybersecurity laws requiring foreign firms to store digital information on China-based servers. Apple says the government will have no backdoor access to the data center.
Unlike in the U.S. where Apple can counter government policy on immigration or climate change, China provides little room for dissent. Thanks to the success of its iPhone, Apple is one of the only foreign technology companies to have flourished in China, a country that's championing the idea of Internet sovereignty in lieu of a free and open global Web. It's a strategy embraced by other autocratic regimes such as Russia, which revealed Sunday that it had passed a law banning VPNs.
Whether Apple has enough leverage to defy China's authoritarian government is open for debate. On one hand, the company indirectly employs hundreds of thousands of factory workers and its mere presence provides China with international cachet. On the other, China's ruling Communist Party considers social stability and its control of information paramount to remaining in power.
Advocates of Internet freedom say the effects of Apple's VPN removal won't be known until after the congress is complete.
"It's possible Apple has made the calculation that if they capitulate now they'll get the VPNs back up later," said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which was highly critical of Apple's removal of the New York Times app. "However, we cannot be sure if Apple is taking them down permanently. If they are, I will be the first to person to rake them over the coals."
For some Chinese Internet users, a complete ban on VPNs would be devastating.
Mindy Zhang, an editor at a travel magazine in Beijing said she needed to scale the Great Firewall for work. She usually uses a VPN she downloaded for free, but that no longer works. She now pays for another service that hasn't been shutdown.
"I think if the government is planning to completely shutdown the VPN services and block us...that would be catastrophic and hopeless for a certain amount of liberal young Chinese if not all Chinese citizens," said Zhang, 25. "I will keep my fingers crossed that day never happens."
Special correspondent Gaochao Zhang in the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
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