- Several VPN service providers saw their apps removed from the App Store in China
- Beijing has doubled down on its crackdown of virtual private networks after making unauthorized connections illegal in January
- VPN allows users in China to bypass strict censorship laws and access sites that are banned in the mainland
Beijing appeared to have doubled down on its crackdown of the internet in China, with news emerging that over the weekend, Apple pulled several virtual private network (VPN) services from the local version of the App Store.
Multiple VPN service providers, affected by the decision, slammed the move online, calling it a "dangerous precedent" set by Apple, which governments in other countries may follow.
VPN service providers received notification from Apple on July 29 that their apps were removed from the China App Store for including "content that is illegal" in the mainland, according to a screenshot posted by ExpressVPN.
VPNs let users in China bypass the country's famous "Great Firewall" that heavily restricts internet access to foreign sites. It also allows for privacy by hiding browsing activities from internet service providers.
Manjunath Bhat, a research director at Gartner, told CNBC that a VPN could circumvent government censorship.
"VPN creates a private tunnel between you (the user) and the service you want to consume," Bhat said, explaining that such a connection escapes government censorship, hiding a user's true origin. It also encrypts communications so that users can be confident others aren't reading their information when connected to public internet services.
Data on GreatFire.org, a site that monitors censorship activity in the mainland, showed 167 of the top 1000 domains are blocked in China. Those include YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google and Instagram among others.
Golden Frog said its VyprVPN service is still accessible in China, despite the app's removal from the App Store. ExpressVPN said users can stay connected to the open internet with the company's apps for Windows, Mac, Android and other platforms.
Apple has recently stepped up business efforts in China. Earlier this month, the company announced the appointment of Isabel Ge Mahe in a new role of vice president and managing director of Greater China to provide leadership and coordination across Apple's China-based team. Apple is also setting up its first data center in the mainland by partnering with a local company, in order to comply with tougher cybersecurity laws in China.
In a blog post, ExpressVPN said it was "disappointed" with Apple's decision. 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," the post read.
Golden Frog also said in a blog post that it was "extremely disappointed" in Apple's decision. It added, "If Apple views accessibility as a human right, we would hope Apple will likewise recognize internet access as a human right (the UN has even ruled it as such) and would choose human rights over profits."
The move was also criticized by others, including U.S. whistle-blower Edward Snowden in a tweet.
"Earlier this year China's (Ministry of Industry and Information Technology) announced that all developers offering VPNs must obtain a license from the government," an Apple spokesperson told CNBC. "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."
On Tuesday, during Apple's earnings call, CEO Tim Cook added, "We would obviously rather not remove the apps, but like we do in other countries we follow the law wherever we do business. We strongly believe participating in markets and bringing benefits to customers is in the best interest of the folks there and in other countries as well."
Apple's decision to remove the apps comes at a time when businesses and individuals inside the mainland are finding it harder to connect to the so-called open internet outside China via VPN. A business executive told CNBC that connecting through VPN in cities like Hangzhou is becoming far more difficult, as compared to bigger places such as Beijing and Shanghai. People using an international SIM card or apps downloaded from App Stores outside China are still able to use VPNs on the mainland, according to the executive.
Some of the remaining VPN companies that have yet to face Beijing's crackdown could end up collaborating with the authorities, according to Martin Johnson (a pseudonym) from GreatFire.org. He told CNBC that some of those companies may hand over user data when requested and be allowed to operate without restrictions. "Those that protect their users security will be removed."
Johnson added, "Apple is now an integral part of China's censorship apparatus, helping the government expand it's control to a global scale."
To be sure, Apple's removal of those apps is not the first time Beijing's cyber regulators have gone after VPN providers. Recent reports said two popular providers — GreenVPN and Haibei VPN — stopped their services following a notice from the regulators. In fact, a number of VPN apps are still available on the local App Store as of Monday.
In January, the MIIT embarked on a 14-month campaign to "clean up" China's internet connections by March 31, 2018. In a notice, the ministry said that, while China's internet access service market is facing "a rare opportunity for development," there are also signs of "disorderly development" needing to be rectified.
Among other services, the move also affected VPNs: The Ministry said those connections cannot be created without the approval of the relevant telecommunications authorities.
State-owned news outlet Global Times reported that a spokesperson for MIIT said at a press conference last week that foreign companies or multinational corporations that need to use VPN for business purposes could rent special lines from telecom providers that legally provide such services.
Johnson said the authorities would "prefer to divide users such that businesses can continue to access the global internet, while ordinary users can only access the filtered internet."
"The Chinese government does not care at all about freedom of speech, but they do care very much about economic growth and China's economy continues to be very dependent on the outside world. Apple should use this leverage and stand up for the principle. Sadly they don't," he said.
— CNBC's Barry Huang contributed to this report.