China appears to have received help on Saturday from an unlikely source in its fight against tools that help users evade its Great Firewall of internet censorship: Apple.
Software made by foreign companies to help users skirt the country’s system of internet filters has vanished from Apple’s app store on the mainland.
One company, ExpressVPN, posted a letter it had received from Apple saying that its app had been taken down “because it includes content that is illegal in China.”
Another tweeted from its official account that its app had been removed.
A search on Saturday showed that a number of the most popular foreign virtual-private networks, also known as VPNs, which give users access to the unfiltered internet in China, were no longer accessible on the company’s app store there.
ExpressVPN wrote in its blog that the removal was “surprising and unfortunate.”
It added, “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.”
Sunday Yokubaitis, president of Golden Frog, a company that makes privacy and security software including VyprVPN, said its software, too, had been taken down from the app store. “We gladly filed an amicus brief in support of Apple in their backdoor encryption battle with the F.B.I.,” he said, “so we are extremely disappointed that Apple has bowed to pressure from China to remove VPN apps without citing any Chinese law or regulation that makes VPN illegal.”
He added, “We view access to Internet in China as a human rights issue, and I would expect Apple to value human rights over profits.”
An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment about the removals, which appear to affect only users in Apple’s China app store — generally those who have indicated a billing address in mainland China.
This is not the first time that Apple has removed apps at the request of the Chinese government, but it is a new reminder of how deeply beholden the tech giant has become to Beijing at a moment when the leadership has been pushing to tighten its control over the internet.
The removals signal a new push by China to control the internet. In the past, the Great Firewall has used technology to disrupt VPNs, and Beijing has shut down Chinese VPNs and even aimed a huge cyberattack at a well-known foreign site hosting code that circumvented the filters.
But they also mark the first time China has successfully used its influence with a major foreign tech platform, like Apple, to push back against the software makers.
While internet crackdowns often peak every five years, ahead of a key Chinese Communist Party congress, this year’s efforts cover fresh ground, a likely indication that stricter controls of things like VPNs will persist after the congress this autumn. Earlier this month, China also began a partial block of the Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp.
Greater China is Apple’s largest market outside the United States. That has left the company more vulnerable than almost any other American technology firm to a Chinese campaign to wean itself off foreign technology and tighten control over foreign tech companies operating there.
In response, Apple has made a number of moves to ensure that it stays on Beijing’s good side. Last year, the company complied with what it said was a request from the Chinese authorities to remove from its China app store news apps created by The New York Times.
This month, the company said it would open its first data center in China to comply with a new law that pushes foreign firms to store more of their data in China.
Apple has operated its app store in China for many years with only the occasional run-in with the government. The VPN crackdown and Beijing’s move in December to target news sites indicates that China’s internet regulators have taken a deeper interest, and are exerting more control, over what is available on Apple’s China app store.