Apple is normally very defiant about freedom of expression and liberty in the US but when it comes to China, it very quickly complies with the local laws. Government enforced Internet censorship is a norm in China and virtual private networks (VPNs) are a way of getting access despite blockages from the government. Some of the major websites banned in China include Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. The Chinese censorship is famously called Great Firewall. Websites and apps that mention the Dalai Lama, for example, are blocked in China. In 2015 the Chinese government blocked access to the New York Times app and it is still blocked.
How does one access blocked websites through a VPN app?
A VPN service or app encrypts the traffic between the Internet user and the VPN server and therefore it becomes impossible for the government to know which website the user is accessing and since it cannot know which website the user is accessing, it cannot block that website. If a user is using a VPN app the government can neither block the websites nor it can monitor the user’s activities.
There are hundreds of thousands of common citizens, opposition leaders and activists whose interests and safety have been thrown out the window to save Apple’s business interests. All the apps that support VPN capabilities have been removed from the App Store in China.
In free and democratic countries like India and the US, VPN is mostly used to bypass geo-IP restrictions to access movies and TV shows. For example, until Netflix blocked various VPN services from its servers, people in India were able to access Netflix USA that has a much better offering in terms of content. So VPN services in these countries are used mostly for fun and entertainment. But in countries like China and Russia, access to these VPN services and apps can be a matter of life and death.
All in all, Apple is known to have removed almost 60 VPN services from China.
One of the well-known VPN software making companies, ExpressVPN, wrote this in its blog post:
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.
It is being considered as one of the most drastic measures of the Chinese government because due to the censorship there are actually very few people who can access the blocked websites and only a few have access to or the knowledge of the VPN apps and services. Many people also think that trying to access blocked websites is illegal anyways and so they refrain from doing so. After all this, very few people are left to actually use these VPN apps and services to access the blocked websites.
There are reportedly 700 million Internet users in China and a very small portion including educated elite and foreign business persons knowingly use the VPN services. By forcing Apple to remove these VPN apps, China aims to clamp down on even this small group of people.
In January 2017 China introduced a new law that would require VPN providers and other software app developers to register and obtain government approval in order to operate in China. Since most of the VPN services are used to access blocked websites and apps which is anyway illegal in China, there is no chance that VPN providers will get approval from the government.
Right on the heels of China forcing Apple to remove its VPN apps Russia has decided to ban the VPN use in Russia. The law will come into effect on November 1, 2017. According to this CNNMoney report, President Vladimir Putin has signed a bill that prohibits services, including virtual private networks that enable users to skirt government censorship efforts.