Apple Removes VPN Apps from Chinese Version of App Store (Jul 31, 2017)
Apple has removed VPN apps from the Chinese version of its App Store for iOS devices, in compliance with the Chinese government’s edict that VPNs have to be licensed to be able to operate. This is yet another example of the difficult line foreign tech companies have to walk in China, complying for the most part with local regulations, even those designed to enable censorship, while preserving freedom of speech in other markets around the world. This is a gray area that Apple hasn’t had to deal with as much as content-centric companies like Facebook and Google, both of which eventually exited China (one forced out, the other choosing to leave rather than submit to censorship requirements), but that’s been starting to change. In the past year and a half, we’ve seen some of Apple’s content offerings like iBooks, individual apps like the New York Times, and now categories such as VPNs blocked, while the government has also forced cloud service providers to work through local companies for data centers. As I’ve said before, so far Apple can simply say it’s complying with local laws and regulations as it does elsewhere, and that will provide some cover, although it hasn’t insulated it entirely from criticism over this latest move. This move in particular further reduces the ability of users with Chinese App Store accounts to get access to otherwise blocked news and information, but a recent crackdown on VPN use makes that challenging anyway. But so far the Chinese government hasn’t forced Apple to break any of its own cardinal rules, including protecting user privacy and security. If and when the Chinese government ever does cross that line, that will be the real test for Apple and could end up being very bad for its business in China. So far, thankfully, it hasn’t come to that. Also worth noting in this context: Russia has just passed legislation that bans the use of VPNs in the country, and although it’s a far less important market for Apple than China, the company will have to deal with some of the same issues there once the law kicks in this November.