UN Asks Apple for Answers Over China VPN Move

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The UN has written to Apple boss Tim Cook requesting more information on why it withdrew scores of VPN apps from its China App Store last month.

Apple released the following statement on July 30:

“Earlier this year China’s MIIT [Ministry of Industry and Information Technology] announced that all developers offering VPNs must obtain a license 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.”

The removal of the apps, which reports claim numbered around 60, leaves only domestic licensed VPNs for iOS users. The problem with such apps is that the government can demand data from their providers at will, defeating the point for many users of anonymizing their browsing.

Now the UN’s David Kaye, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has asked for more info on Apple’s decision-making, given that previous statements from the tech giant claim “that Apple states a point of view and speaks up in the context of restrictions on fundamental rights.”

In particular, he wants to know: whether Apple received a specific request from the government, whether it made a legal analysis of the situation, if it objected, if it raised China’s obligations under international human rights law or if it raised non-legal concerns about removing VPNs, such as the impact on innovation, individual security and “commercial connections”.

In a carefully worded letter, Kaye clearly highlights the difficulties facing US tech firms in China; of balancing their commitment to free speech and online freedoms with a promise to obey the laws of the land.

“In recent years, China has expanded the scope of its censorship tools and efforts, coming at the expense of individual rights to freedom of expression, access to information, freedom of association, and other fundamental human rights. Chinese restrictions put you in the position – unenvious, and likely reluctantly – of having to mediate between your customers, Chinese citizens, and Chinese law,” he wrote.

“While [Apple] may be a natural target for government censorship, it has also become indispensable to the lives of hundreds of millions of users worldwide, and therefore uniquely qualified to speak truth to power and stand up for their rights.”

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