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Apple Inc., a Cupertino-based multinational technology company, has removed virtual private networks, or VPN services from its app store in China, flickering criticism that Apple was bowing to pressure from Beijing web censorship.

Purpose of VPNs

With the use of VPNs, internet users in China avoid the country’s notable “Great Firewall” that greatly limits access to overseas sites. They let users to hide their IP addresses and access online material that might be blocked by internet filters.

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Affected VPN Apps

According to some news, at least three were removed from the China app store over the weekend.

Apple gave notice to ExpressVPN, VyprVPN and, StarVPN, saying that their products would be removed from the app store.

The company that provides VyprVPN, Golden Frog, was critical of the decision and that it would file an appeal with Apple. Its president, Yokubaitis, said on Sunday in a blog post that “If Apple views accessibility as a human right, we would hope that Apple would likewise recognize internet access as a human right (the UN has even ruled it as such) and would choose human rights over profits.”

The notification was first shared by ExpressVPN, a VPN provider based out of British Vrigin Islands, which also operates in China.

ExpressVPN said in a blog post that “We are disappointed as it represents the most drastic measure the Chinese government has taken to block the use of VPNs date and we are troubled to see Apple aiding China’s censorship efforts.”

On one hand, the tech giant said it was legally required to eliminate the country’s VPN apps because they did not meet the new regulations.

However, the VPN apps will remain available to users from the different place’s App Store by placing their billing address to be outside China’s territory.

Further Details on Why Apple Removed the VPNs

Earlier this year, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced laws seeking to ban all VPNs that are not approved by state regulators. Approved VPN developers must use state network infrastructure.

Apple said it was required to take out some VPN apps from its store due to non-compliance with the regulations. However, it is fair to say that Apple has many reasons to be cautious of suffering from Beijing’s wrath.

The tech company makes most of its hardware in China, and it has also become a great market for its product. With low cost local competitors cutting into the iPhone’s market share, Apple’s profits are more likely to rely on apps and services, some of which could run into China’s censorship ruling.

Earlier this month, Apple also built its first data center in China, in aggregation with a local company Guizhou-Cloud Big Data Industry. Although Apple said it would keep the encryption keys and would not compromise the privacy of users, some pundits have suggested that housing data in China could form a pressure for Apple to pass data in future disputes.

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China’s Past Restrictions Activity

The Chinese government has not confirmed that the recent stoppage of voice messages and images on the messaging app WhatsApp is part of a censorship push, but WhatsApp has also not yet given any words of confirmation that it has just been a technical issue.

Social media sites, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are blocked by Beijing. Search engines, like Google are blocked, and access to many overseas media outlets, including BBC, are also restricted. China recently blocked social media posts, and even private messages, and group chats about the death of Chinese rebel Liu Xiaobo.

China is expected to stiffen restrictions ahead of the next communist party congress, where President Xi Jinping is said to retain the top job.

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