Apple Removes VPNs from China App Store

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Apple has removed scores of foreign VPN apps from its China App Store in order to comply with censorship orders from Beijing, it has emerged.

Reports suggest that up to 60 such apps were withdrawn by the tech giant from its app marketplace over the weekend.

This means that the only remaining VPNs on the China App Store are those – usually domestic – VPNs that have been government-approved, which basically means the authorities can request operators to hand over data at will.

A brief statement from Apple seemed to indicate that the move had come in response to an order from the Ministry of Industry and IT (MIIT) in January that all VPN providers must seek a government license.

It had the following:

“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.”

The move comes ahead of the 19th Communist Party National Congress, during which time there is heightened sensitivity in government about dissenting online voices, which usually leads to a crackdown on such channels.

However, given the order came in January, this could be part of a longer-term policy by the Xi administration to limit even further what Chinese netizens can access online.

A relatively small percentage of the population use VPNs to tunnel out through the Great Firewall to the unfettered internet, with most of them well-educated middle class, urbanites.

But this doesn’t seem to matter to the President and Party leader as he looks to consolidate his grip on power, according to Charlie Smith, co-founder of anti-censorship non-profit

“I think Xi wants to silence all dissenting voices, regardless of how large or small they might be,” he told Infosecurity Magazine.

The government also recently passed a long-mooted Cybersecurity Law designed to keep corporate data inside its borders, among other things. Apple is said to be planning its first data centre inside the country as a result.

The move to ban VPNs could affect Apple’s brand in the West, if it is seen as pandering to the whims of an authoritarian regime. The firm is increasingly dependent on China for a sizeable chunk of its global revenue and has numerous production facilities in the country.

One of the VPN providers affected, ExpressVPN, had the following response:

“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 strongly condemns these measures, which threaten free speech and civil liberties.”

Earlier this month, a Bloomberg report indicated that the government is looking to effectively ban unsanctioned VPNs for personal use by requesting the country’s telcos to block them from 1 February 2018.

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