Ever since internet users discovered that internet providers might compromise their online privacy, many have turned to virtual private networks (VPNs). VPNs promise enhanced online security, and their global rise has generated significant profits. However, in a surprising move, the Chinese government banned VPNs, ostensibly because they obstructed government surveillance efforts.
VPN providers were stunned to find their apps removed from the Apple Store in China. ExpressVPN was among the first to be notified by Apple. Rather than offering a detailed explanation, the Chinese government vaguely alluded to "illegal content." Rather than assuming responsibility, Apple directed ExpressVPN to comply with Chinese law. StarVPN also shared a similar notice they received from Apple. Countries like China, Russia, Iran, and Syria are among the most stringent in terms of internet restrictions.
In China, individuals have limited control over their personal online data. The absence of VPNs forces many to rely on ISPs, which the government can monitor. Interestingly, only Apple appeared to be singled out by this ban, as users of other brands continue to access the open internet. The Chinese authorities indicated to Apple that they did not have the necessary permissions to run VPNs, possibly clarifying the mention of "illegal content."
Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. The VPN ban is concerning because it restricts Chinese citizens from expressing dissenting opinions privately. Many in China felt that Apple was complicit in curtailing their freedom of expression.
Furthermore, popular messaging apps like WhatsApp and WeChat faced disruptions post the ban. The implications of the VPN prohibition extend to the Chinese tourism industry, with tourists being unable to use VPN services. Even the hospitality sector felt the pinch, as hotels stopped offering VPN services. The ban led to numerous international VPN providers exiting the Chinese market.
Apple's decision to remove VPN apps hurt its public image. Many users felt a sense of betrayal, leading to divided opinions even among American Apple patrons. While VPN services are prohibited in China, VPN companies still find markets in other parts of Asia. Apple remains optimistic about mending its ties with China. To this end, they have appointed Isabel Ge Mahe as the managing director in China to foster stronger US-China relations, especially concerning new cybersecurity regulations.
The situation worsened when Skype, a popular communication tool, became inaccessible. While reports suggested Skype had disappeared from the Apple store, it remained available on other platforms. Like ExpressVPN, Microsoft was accused of not adhering to Chinese regulations.
Within two years, Apple had delisted over 100 apps, which had negative ramifications for international businesses. Two companies even pursued legal action against Apple, alleging discrimination. These lawsuits caught the government's attention, prompting them to encourage Apple to defend its brand and reputation. Apple, in turn, announced plans for a data center that aligns with Chinese internet regulations. Their objectives include: