Ap­ple makes it harder to duck China cen­sors

The tech gi­ant pulls VPN ser­vices used to reach banned sites from its App Store.

Los Angeles Times - - TECHNOLOGY - By David Pier­son david.pier­son@la­times.com

Ap­ple Inc. has re­moved dozens of vir­tual pri­vate network ser­vices from its App Store in China, deal­ing a blow to In­ter­net users there hop­ing to evade cen­sor­ship to reach a host of banned sites, such as Face­book, YouTube and Twit­ter.

Providers of such tools, called VPNs, say the tech­nol­ogy gi­ant bowed to gov­ern­ment pres­sure when it pulled down a re­ported 60 ser­vices that tun­nel through China’s so-called Great Fire­wall to ac­cess sites and ap­pli­ca­tions deemed a threat to author­i­ties such as In­sta­gram, the New York Times and many Google prop­er­ties.

“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,” said VPN provider Ex­pressVPN in a blog post Satur­day, the day the apps were taken down. “Ex­pressVPN strongly con­demns these mea­sures, which threaten free speech and civil lib­er­ties.”

The move comes as China tight­ens re­stric­tions on both In­ter­net users and tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies — a broader strat­egy to consolidate Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s power and counter for­eign in­flu­ence. The re­cent crack­down could also be timed to co­in­cide with the 19th party congress next month. China typ­i­cally en­hances se­cu­rity and gov­ern­ment con­trol dur­ing times of po­lit­i­cal sen­si­tiv­ity. Last month, ac­cess to Face­book’s What­sApp ser­vice was dis­rupted.

“The crack­downs come in waves,” said Bill Bul­lock, chief ex­ec­u­tive of WiTopia, a U.S.-based VPN provider. “It usu­ally hap­pens over na­tional hol­i­days or [po­lit­i­cal] events. They’ll flex their mus­cles to show they have con­trol and then it typ­i­cally sub­sides af­ter a while.”

VPNs pro­vide ac­cess to blocked sites by al­low­ing users to mask their web brows­ing through an un­blocked server out­side the Great Fire­wall. Out­side China, the soft­ware is com­monly used as a layer of se­cu­rity.

It’s un­clear how many of China’s more than 700 mil­lion In­ter­net users have ac­cessed a VPN, many of which are pro­vided by com­pa­nies over­seas. Ex­perts had long con­sid­ered VPN us­age largely re­stricted to the ed­u­cated elite, ex­pa­tri­ates and for­eign busi­ness­peo­ple who need the soft­ware to work with the out­side world. So long as the tool wasn’t adopted en masse, author­i­ties had lit­tle to fear.

But in Jan­uary, China re­quired VPN providers to reg­is­ter and ob­tain gov­ern­ment ap­proval in or­der to op­er­ate. Ap­ple said it had no choice but to re­move all VPNs that did not com­ply with this law.

“We have been re­quired to re­move some VPN apps in China that do not meet the new reg­u­la­tions,” the com­pany said in a state­ment. “These apps re­main avail­able in all other mar­kets where they do busi­ness.”

This is not the first time Ap­ple has ac­qui­esced to author­i­ties in China, the com­pany’s sec­ond-big­gest mar­ket af­ter the U.S. It has pulled apps from its China app store that men­tion the Dalai Lama and eth­nic Uighur ac­tivist Re­biya Kadeer. Ap­ple also re­moved the New York Times app this year and dis­abled its news app in China in 2015.

Last month, Ap­ple said it would build its first data cen­ter in China to speed up cloud ser­vices and com­ply with new cy­ber­se­cu­rity laws re­quir­ing for­eign firms to store dig­i­tal in­for­ma­tion on China-based servers. Ap­ple says the gov­ern­ment will have no back­door ac­cess to the data cen­ter.

Un­like in the U.S. where Ap­ple can counter gov­ern­ment pol­icy on im­mi­gra­tion or cli­mate change, China pro­vides lit­tle room for dis­sent. Thanks to the suc­cess of its iPhone, Ap­ple is one of the only for­eign tech com­pa­nies to have flour­ished in China, a coun­try that’s cham­pi­oning the idea of In­ter­net sovereignty in lieu of a free and open global Web. It’s a strat­egy em­braced by other au­to­cratic regimes such as Rus­sia, which re­vealed Sun­day that it had passed a law ban­ning VPNs.

Whether Ap­ple has enough lever­age to defy China’s au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment is open for de­bate. On one hand, the com­pany in­di­rectly em­ploys hun­dreds of thou­sands of fac­tory work­ers and its mere pres­ence pro­vides China with in­ter­na­tional ca­chet. On the other, China’s rul­ing Com­mu­nist Party con­sid­ers so­cial sta­bil­ity and its con­trol of in­for­ma­tion para­mount to re­main­ing in power.

Ad­vo­cates of In­ter­net free­dom say the ef­fects of Ap­ple’s VPN re­moval won’t be known un­til af­ter the congress is com­plete.

“It’s pos­si­ble Ap­ple has made the cal­cu­la­tion that if they ca­pit­u­late now they’ll get the VPNs back up later,” said Eva Galperin, di­rec­tor of cy­ber­se­cu­rity for the Elec­tronic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion. “How­ever, we can­not be sure if Ap­ple is tak­ing them down per­ma­nently. If they are, I will be the first to per­son to rake them over the coals.”

How Hwee Young Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

C H I NA is Ap­ple’s sec­ond-big­gest mar­ket af­ter the U.S. Above, an Ap­ple Store in Bei­jing in 2012.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.