Apple vs. China: VPN Censorship

For many people, using a VPN – or virtual private network – is standard practice when it comes to using the internet in a safe and concealed way, protecting their privacy. But in other countries where regimes conduct surveillance over what citizens view online, the reality is very different.
From China to Russia, we’ve seen a crackdown on the use of VPNs by regular internet users. Vladimir Putin recently passed laws which will outlaw the use of VPNs in Russia, a country where certain websites are already banned. This news closely followed an announcement that Apple was forced to remove unauthorized VPN apps from the App Store in Russia. After this event, government ruled that only licensed VPN providers were allowed to operate in the country.
Human rights and privacy groups are obviously concerned at the implications of governments banning the use of VPNs as a mechanism to more closely censor the internet use of their citizens. As Jim Killock, executive director of the U.K. digital rights campaign Open Rights Group, speaking about the Russian legislation told CNBC: “VPNs can help people freely access the Internet without their browsing being observed by their internet provider. People can also use them to access censored and blocked content. Laws that criminalize the use of privacy-enhancing technologies like VPNs are incredibly dangerous and will restrict rights to privacy, free expression and access to information.”
While the more stringent approach to internet censorship in countries like China and Russia is nothing new, the news from China concerning VPNs does represent a troubling precedent. This is the first time that a major western internet company has kowtowed to the Chinese government to help them a establish a stricter version of the internet. In former examples, such as with Google, the company chose not to operate in the country when censorship became a problem, instead choosing to direct search traffic to Hong Kong.
That said, there is good reason for Apple to keep in China’s good books—the country is the country’s second-biggest market after the US, and growing—but enabling further government censorship flies in the face of many of the supposedly open, transparent, and democratic values that are common in Silicon Valley.
As TechCrunch noted: “So we can see where Mr. Cook is under pressure. To stay in the country he must walk a delicate balancing act with the famously restrictive authorities, while growing sales. But, like a captain navigating his ship between two large rocks, he’s about to get well and truly stuck. Apple can’t afford to pull out of China, and in theory it can’t afford to piss-off the government by allowing access to unlicensed VPN apps. That leaves those that want to ‘see’ outside of China via a phone needing to either jailbreak their iPhones or switch to version of Android with less oversight.”
On the issue of VPNs, it’s clear that Apple’s decision was to acquiesce in the hope of shoring up sales for its products ahead of its new iPhone launch, but the question remains as to whether that approach is sustainable. VPNs are just one issue associated with government censorship of the internet, and we’ve seen firms like Facebook and Google grapple with the downsides of dealing with one of the world’s biggest markets. By ceding ground early, many pundits think Apple has created a situation where it will have to continue sacrificing its values in order to continue freely operating in the country.
As TechCrunch went on to say: “But perhaps the biggest headache Tim has is that Apple not have a leg to stand on when it is once again confronted with governmental censorship elsewhere. How will Apple now argue against the Trump administration effectively, after kowtowing to China in this fashion?”
Only time will tell.