Apple has agreed to shut down dozens of VPNs in China after the government announced new regulations that require developers to obtain licenses for their VPNs.
Apple's move to block VPNs is in major contrast to its stance in the United States where it engaged in a public spat with the FBI over user privacy.
Earlier this year, the Chinese government announced that all VPN developers were to obtain licenses from it before launching their new VPNs. The rule also applied to existing VPNs which meant that any VPN that did not carry a government license was to be culled.
In a country where Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and foreign media websites are totally banned, VPNs offered a tiny window for citizens to access online material forbidden by the state. Using VPNs, citizens can hide their IP addresses and evade government filters to get a glimpse at the outside world.
The Chinese government is now shutting down all unregulated VPNs by the thousands but what is more surprising is that Apple decided to go down without offering a fight. According to the BBC, more than 60 VPNs are no longer available in Apple's China mainland App Store.
Apple has not confirmed exactly how many VPNs it was forced to shut down to comply with government regulations. Among the victims of the recent VPN cull was Golden Frog, a leading VPN provider that saw its security software kicked out of the App Store. Understandably, they are now seething.
'When it comes to their App Store Apple is the judge, jury and executor, and now it appears the Chinese government is Apple’s overlord,' said Sunday Yokubaitis, President at Golden Frog.
'We were excited to file an amicus brief in support of Apple in their backdoor encryption battle with the FBI, so we’re extremely disappointed that Apple has bowed to pressure from China to remove VPN apps without citing any Chinese law or regulation making VPNs illegal,' he added.
Apple is deeply invested in China and not only are most iPhones manufactured in China, but the country is a vast consumer base for its devices, apps, and services. Unlike in the United States which is its home territory, Apple cannot afford to take on an authoritarian Chinese government that won't think twice before kicking the company and its services out.
To safeguard its businesses, Apple has thus placed a premium on profits over user privacy and 'internet freedom'. While its stance in the United States gave an impression that it didn't have anything to do with government surveillance, its subservience to Chinese regulations now makes it vulnerable to similar commands from many other countries.
Apple's recent move also means that human rights activists and dissidents won't trust its devices anymore while sharing their views with citizens and organisations in other countries. While Apple has managed to save its business prospects in China, it may face more pressure from authorities in the future to disclose user data or to remove encryption whenever demanded.