In a move sure to put Apple’s ongoing activities in China under a more intense international microscope, a number of foreign-made VPN software apps have been removed from China’s app store, according to a report from The New York Times.
The report cites several VPN makers, including ExpressVPN and Star VPN, after the two companies posted public messages revealing that Apple sent them letters notifying them of their removal from the China app store.
“We received notification from Apple today, July 29, 2017, at roughly 04:00 GMT, that the ExpressVPN iOS app was removed from the China App Store,” stated ExpressVPN on its website. “Our preliminary research indicates that all major VPN apps for iOS have been removed.”
Part of the notification message from Apple, captured and posted in screenshots from the company, stated: “We are writing to notify you that your application will be removed from the China App Store because it includes content that is illegal in China, which is not in compliance with the Apple Store Review Guidelines.”
However, that message noted that the ExpresVPN’s app is still available in other Apple App Store territories.
“Were 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 Chinas censorship efforts,” the message from ExpressVPN continued. “ExpressVPN strongly condemns these measures, which threaten free speech and civil liberties.”
When contacted by The New York Times, the paper reports, “An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment about the removals.”
But in a statement later provided to Mashable, an Apple spokesperson offered further clarification. “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,” said the spokesperson. “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 policy mentioned by Apple appears to refer to the crackdown by Chinese authorities in January that required VPN’s to obtain “prior government approval,” according to the South China Morning Post. As that report noted, the policy would make most VPNs in use in the country unauthorized. The move to actively enforce the policy is slated to continue until March 2018, according to the report.
The frequent practice of controlling the flow of internet information in China by the government has led to the nickname of the Great Firewall regarding the Chinese government’s censorship policies. Apple’s move to adhere to the government’s VPN policy may seem unusual, but it’s appears to be the cost of doing business in China, and it’s just another in a long trail of internet censorship efforts regularly enforced by the Chinese government.
Nevertheless, this particular crackdown represents a major shift that will impact the biggest iOS app market on the planet, not just in terms of sales, but for privacy as well.
*This story has been updated to include the comments from Apple and the policy referenced in those comments.