One of Apple’s most famous marketing campaigns revolved around the catchphrase “There’s an app for that”—to the point that Apple eventually had the slogan trademarked. However, for users living in China, that statement is no longer true. According to a recent report from CNBC, Apple has removed most of the VPN apps from its Chinese App Store.
The removals weren’t random: China made unauthorized connections—including those made possible by virtual private networks—illegal in January of this year. VPNs allow users to access restricted parts of the Internet and surf the web without being tracked. In China and other countries where government censorship and Internet control are on the books, VPN apps provide citizens with a way to defy the authorities and work-around censorship measures.
In China, the government uses a system often referred to as the “Great Firewall” to control what their citizens see on the web. In particular, the system makes it difficult to access foreign websites and reduces the privacy that users have while browsing the web. VPNs can allow people who are living or working in China to circumnavigate these protections for more unrestricted, more private Internet use.
Going forward, though, VPNs are going to be harder to come by in China, making it more difficult for users to beat the Great Firewall. Per the CNBC report, multiple developers with VPN apps on the Chinese App Store recently received notices from Apple saying that their apps contained “content that is illegal.” Those apps were then removed from the App Store, rendering them unavailable to users in China.
In a statement about the removals, Apple noted that China now requires VPN developers to obtain exclusive licenses from the government. Apps from developers that don’t have those licenses are illegal in China and can therefore not be sold on the App Store without violating regulations. Apple did note that the apps in question “remain available in all other markets where they do business.”
CEO Tim Cook added that Apple would have preferred not to remove the apps, but said that the company is committed to following the laws in every country where it does business. Cook also hinted that the choice might have been between complying with China’s government or pulling out of the country altogether. “We firmly believe participating in markets and bringing benefits to customers is in the best interest of the folks there and in other countries as well.”
Still, Apple has faced criticisms for assisting the Chinese government in its censorship efforts. Some sources even suggested that Apple’s decision have connections to the company’s recent push to ramp up business efforts in mainland China. Writer Martijn Grooten, reporting for Virus Bulletin, acknowledged the awkward spot Apple was in, expressing his disappointment over the company’s decision but noting that “removing the iPhone completely from China wouldn’t make users better off.”