This week, Apple announced it had pulled several apps from its iOS App Store that offer virtual private network (VPN) services in China. As quoted by tech blog TechCrunch, Apple stated:
Earlier this year China’s [Ministry of Industry and Information Technology] MIIT announced that all developers offering VPNs must obtain a license from the government. 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.
One published report claims that as many as 60 VPNs were pulled from the China version of the App Store. A Google search on the topic generally shows Apple taking a public beating for the action, which, in fact, was unavoidable if Apple was to comply with the new Chinese government law.
As David Pierson of the LA Times noted, it’s hardly Apple’s first anti-free speech accomodation to the Communist Chinese government:
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.
Apple will face exactly the same situation in November, when a new Russian law banning VPNs comes into effect.
Veteran Apple watcher John Gruber made the following observation on Apple’s decision:
The thing I keep thinking about is that iMessage and FaceTime are among the few protocols available inside China with end-to-end encryption. The Chinese just started blocking WhatsApp a few weeks ago. I don’t know why they allow iMessage and FaceTime to continue working, but they do, and both of those protocols are designed from the ground up to only work using end-to-end encryption. There is no “off switch” for iMessage encryption that Apple can flip inside China. If you’re using iMessage, it’s encrypted. It would surprise no one if China started blocking iMessage and FaceTime, but for now, their availability is a real benefit to the people of China that seems to go largely unrecognized.
You can pretty much take it to the bank that blocking iMessage and FaceTime will be next up for Chinese (and probably) Russian censors, with further demands that other apps offering end-to-end encryption be excised from the iOS App Store.
And it will be those kinds of precedents that incoming FBI Director Christopher Wray and his colleagues in the American Intelligence Community use to force Apple and other manufacturers of privacy technology and software to give them “back doors” into said apps and services or to seek an outright ban on them on “national security” grounds. If that happens, American citizens should remind their federal legislators that if House and Senate members are allowed to use encrypted messaging apps and services, so should the citizens who elect them and pay their salaries.