Amid falling sales in China—its second largest market—Apple has cut virtual private network (VPN) apps from its Chinese Apple store. The apps provided a rare window to free information for people in the world’s most populous country.
The move could further Cupertino’s efforts to win favor from the Chinese communist regime but cost it the credibility it won in its battle against an FBI order to develop software to crack an iPhone 5C in 2016.
Amazon, which provides cloud computing services to other companies, has done the same through its Chinese vendor, Beijing Sinnet Technology. The move could leave companies there exposed to deeper monitoring and censorship.
The moves come at the behest of China’s Ministry of Public Security, which functions as the regime’s telecom regulator.
VPNs create a secured, encrypted connection between two users. In Apple’s case, the apps allowed users to access region-restricted websites and bypass internet censorship, providing one of the few avenues to free information through the Great Firewall censorship system.
Amazon has also followed suit, with Sinnet notifying clients of the web giant’s cloud computing services that they must stop using circumvention software.
In Apple’s case, cutting the apps, and earlier moves to drop news and social media apps from its Chinese app store, could keep the company on the regime’s “tolerate” list.
Apple’s said it is following local regulations and laws, something Apple CEO Tim Cook said Apple does in every country it operates. Cook has said Apple believed in engaging with governments even when they disagreed with them.
But in doing so without any public effort to resist, some critics charge Apple has dishonored the kind of free-thinking environment that gave birth to its innovative character.
Some observers, like Willy Wo-Lap Lam from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, have described the move as a “commercial and political quid pro quo between Apple and the Chinese Government.”
But even with the kowtow, Apple faces difficult times in China. Revenues have stalled and sales are falling with the iPhone losing ground to local rivals, rivals developed in part through technology that American companies were compelled to share with Chinese joint venture partners.
Apple is also building a new data center in Guizhou Province, a requirement of a June 1 cybersecurity law that stipulates firms must store user data inside China’s borders.
The broad scope of the law has companies and national governments worried. Beyond requiring companies store information on domestic servers, it can also require companies to submit to a security review of any data they wish to move out of China. That requirement has raised fears that Beijing could steal important technology and trade secrets.
GreatFire.org, which develops web tools to circumvent Chinese censorship and monitors the Great Fire Wall’s censorship activities, has warned of the impacts.
— GreatFire.org (@GreatFireChina) July 26, 2017
Foreign companies in China can only “export” data with the approval of data middlemen snooping for state secrets https://t.co/N2vtqs7ifv
— GreatFire.org (@GreatFireChina) July 28, 2017
VPNs, like those used by Amazon’s clients in China and Apple’s users there, are one way companies, governments, and individuals get information out of China without it being monitored or censored.
China has not been shy in the past about employing military and other state-supported hackers to acquire technology for commercial purposes. In one sense, China’s new cybersecurity law removes legal barriers to that effort.
A sour note for many free internet activists is the quiet with which American internet giants, including Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple have complied with the regime’s demands.
Yahoo’s infamous handling of dissident emails—including handing over the IP address of a journalist in 2005 that led to a 10 year prison sentence for emailing a list of censorship demands to a nonprofit—is one high profile example.
Microsoft, meanwhile, has long stood accused of allowing Beijing to dictate keyword censorship on its Bing search engine in China, omitting results for searches like “Dalai Lama” or only allowing through search results from state-sanctioned sources.
Microsoft—which had previously fought disclosing source code to the Chinese regime and other efforts undertaken in the name of “cybersecurity” and “anti-terrorism”—took a starkly different tone in releasing Windows 10 China Government Edition, a state-sanctioned version of the operating system for use by the country’s public sector.
“It is an honor and privilege today to be in China—the center place of some of the world’s most life-changing inventions like paper, the abacus, and the world’s first movable type printing press,” Microsoft wrote on one of its blogs in May.
One of the criticisms companies like Microsoft and Apple face is that they give into the demands of a totalitarian regime without making any apparent effort not to, outside the occasional letter through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
There is also little acknowledgement of doing something contrary to the best interests of users and partners.
One of the only companies that has ever done so is Google.
Google Stands as Exception
Google started offering search services in China in 2006, complying with Chinese censorship demands under the rationale that it was better for Chinese users that Google was there than not there. Also, Google notified Chinese users of filtered results.
But after the regime hacked Google and dozens of other companies, and also hacked into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists, Google refused to filter its results any further.
The company knew it would likely lead to its services being barred from China, as were the services of Twitter, Flickr, and others not too long before.
Google directed its Chinese searches to its Hong Kong version, which was uncensored. Within months, it was blocked in mainland China.
Critics of Apple’s moves to bow to Chinese censorship said the company should have fought harder.
“Apple should have stood its ground. It should have relied on its standing in the market as the provider of the most sought after, premium, mobile device,” writes Mike Butcher on a Tech Crunch commentary.
“In sticking to its principles, Apple would have been able to hold its head high in the US and globally. It could have maintained its brand values amongst its devoted user-base around the world,” he wrote.