Why has Apple pulled VPNs from the Chinese App Store? Because defying new law could risk ban on all its apps, says expert

How far should Apple go to stay on China’s good side? The country is its biggest market, and company may fear a ban on all VPN downloads from app store or a block on the whole store, which would have a far bigger impact on its business

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 August, 2017, 6:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 August, 2017, 5:24pm

China’s restrictive internet policies are known for blocking web users who want to reach Google, Facebook or other banned apps. But now some of those policies are affecting Apple, one of the few remaining US tech giants with a presence in the country – and the issue is raising questions about Apple’s moral standing around the world.

Apple recently began pulling apps from its Chinese App Store that may conflict with a new Chinese law aimed at shoring up the country’s online censorship regime.

The removed apps were all providers of virtual private networks, or VPNs – tools that allow users to get around China’s “Great Firewall” by making it look like they are surfing the web from some other country. (VPNs have also seen growing interest from US users who are cautious about their privacy.)

“Our preliminary research indicates that all major VPN apps for iOS have been removed,” ExpressVPN, a provider based in the British Virgin Islands, said in a blog post.

Apple pulls major VPN from China App Store

Only the Chinese App Store has been affected by the change, meaning that Chinese iOS users can still download a VPN app if they use someone else’s VPN to try to get to any of Apple’s non-China App Stores. And Chinese iOS users can still communicate with iOS users outside China through the use of iMessage, Apple’s proprietary messaging app, although research suggests iMessage is dwarfed in China by WeChat, a competing app that’s grown popular due to its availability on the Android operating system.

But the bigger question facing Apple is the same that many tech companies grapple with when it comes to doing business in a country of more than 730 million internet users. How far is it appropriate to go to remain on Beijing’s good side?

For Apple, it’s more than a question of ethics. China is one of the company’s biggest markets, with more iPhone owners there than in the United States. Apple’s courtship of Chinese consumers dates back years, and the relationship has only become more intense as China’s smartphone market has matured.

Although the iPhone is the most popular smartphone in China, other manufacturers such as Samsung are not far behind, according to Chinese government statistics. Xiaomi and Huawei, two of China’s biggest domestic manufacturers, accounted for more than 29 per cent of the market last year.

VPN crackdown an ‘unthinkable’ trial by firewall for China’s research world

Apple’s growth in smartphones is highly linked to the Chinese market. So when Beijing announced this year that all VPN services in China would need to get a government permit or risk operating illegally, it put Apple in a tough spot as a company that makes VPNs available in its app store.

What could happen to Apple if it continues to offer apps that have been deemed illegal isn’t entirely clear. But the company appears to be taking no chances with its interpretation of the rules, saying in a statement that “we have been required” to remove VPNs from the Chinese App Store.

Apple’s capitulation to China’s VPN crackdown will return to haunt it at home
TechCrunch headline

If Apple refused to keep the government happy, the decision could prompt Beijing to try to block individual downloads of VPN apps from the App Store, said Adam Segal, a cybersecurity and China scholar at the US Council on Foreign Relations.

Failing that, he said, the government could try to block the entire App Store outright, cutting off Apple’s primary way of getting third-party software and services to customers. That would be bad news for Apple’s performance in China.

‘It’s a game of whack-a-mole’: Overseas VPN service providers gain as China tightens control on internet use

Rather than play out these scenarios, other tech companies such as Google have opted to withdraw from China altogether. Some of Apple’s critics have suggested that by not doing the same, it not only loses the moral high ground but also sets a precedent that other governments, including that of the United States, will seek to exploit.

“Apple’s capitulation to China’s VPN crackdown will return to haunt it at home,” reads the headline for a post by Mike Butcher on tech industry news website TechCrunch.

The headline is a nod to some of the highly public battles Apple has got into with US law enforcement.

Last year, the Justice Department fought with tech companies over whether and how authorities could peer into the encrypted communications of consumers. Companies such as Apple argued that letting the government break encryption would undermine the security of all users, while law enforcement said it was a necessary step for fighting terrorism.