Apple Removes Apps That Allowed China Users to Get Around Filters

By Josh Chin Features Dow Jones Newswires

Apple Inc. is removing software from its app store in China that allowed users to circumvent the country's vast system of internet filters, according to makers of the apps.

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Several popular apps giving users access to virtual private networks, or VPNs, that tunnel through China's sophisticated system of internet filters disappeared from the mainland China version of Apple's App Store on Saturday.

One service, ExpressVPN, said in a blog post that Apple had notified it that its iOS app was removed from the Chinese App Store. ExpressVPN published a copy of the notice, which said the app included content that was illegal in China.

Another company, Star VPN, said on its Twitter account that it had also received the notice. Searches in the China App store for a number of popular VPN apps turned up no results Saturday evening.

"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," the ExpressVPN blog post said.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment. China's internet regulators have not responded to multiple requests for comment about their regulation of VPNs.

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Apple's move appears aimed at helping the company stay on the safe side of a raft of tough new cybersecurity regulations designed to solidify Beijing's grip on the Chinese internet. Earlier this month, the Cupertino, Calif., technology giant announced that, because of the new rules, it planned to store all of its Chinese customers' data on servers operated by a government-controlled company.

In the past, Apple has removed individual apps from the Chinese App Store that ran afoul of China's censors, but it is rare for the company to eliminate several at once.

Chinese authorities have moved aggressively in recent weeks to tighten controls over VPNs, which are used by everyone from political activists to scientists to multinational enterprises to access uncensored internet content beyond China's borders.

A southern China data-services company with over 160 clients said it received orders last week from the Ministry of Public Security, which runs China's police forces, to cut off access to foreign providers of VPNs. Those orders came days after a luxury hotel in Beijing, the Waldorf Astoria, said in a letter to guests that it had stopped offering VPNs "due to legal issues in China."

Earlier this month, a well-known Chinese provider announced it had been told by regulators to stop service.

The tightening of controls comes as China edges closer to a fall Communist Party conclave, at which most of the country's top leaders are set to be replaced. Internet controls in China typically wax and wane according to the gravity of political events, but many of the recent moves are in line with a long-term drive by Chinese Presidnt Xi to harden China's internet against outside threats by exerting more control over flows of data.

As part of that push, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued a notice in January of plans to "clean up" the internet services market, including a crackdown on the use of unapproved VPNs in cross-border business activities, by March next year.

Write to Josh Chin at josh.chin@wsj.com

BEIJING -- Apple Inc. is removing software from its app store in China that allowed users to circumvent the country's vast system of internet filters, according to makers of the apps.

Several popular apps giving users access to virtual private networks, or VPNs, that tunnel through China's sophisticated system of internet filters disappeared from the mainland China version of Apple's App Store on Saturday.

One service, ExpressVPN, said in a blog post that Apple had notified it that its iOS app was removed from the Chinese App Store. ExpressVPN published a copy of the notice, which said the app included content that was illegal in China.

Another company, Star VPN, said on its Twitter account that it had also received the notice. Searches in the China App store for a number of popular VPN apps turned up no results Saturday evening.

"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," the ExpressVPN blog post said.

Apple later confirmed the removals in a statement, citing new rules that require VPN providers to obtain licenses from regulators.

"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," it said.

China's internet regulators haven't responded to multiple requests for comment about their regulation of VPNs.

Apple's move appears aimed at helping the company stay on the safe side of a raft of tough new cybersecurity regulations designed to solidify Beijing's grip on the Chinese internet. Earlier this month, the Cupertino, Calif., technology giant announced that, because of the new rules, it planned to store all of its Chinese customers' data on servers operated by a government-controlled company.

In the past, Apple has removed individual apps from the Chinese App Store that ran afoul of China's censors, but it is rare for the company to eliminate several at once.

Chinese authorities have moved aggressively in recent weeks to tighten controls over VPNs, which are used by everyone from political activists to scientists to multinational enterprises to access uncensored internet content beyond China's borders.

A southern China data-services company with over 160 clients said it received orders last week from the Ministry of Public Security, which runs China's police forces, to cut off access to foreign providers of VPNs. Those orders came days after a luxury hotel in Beijing, the Waldorf Astoria, said in a letter to guests that it had stopped offering VPNs "due to legal issues in China."

Earlier this month, a well-known Chinese provider announced it had been told by regulators to stop service.

The tightening of controls comes as China edges closer to a fall Communist Party conclave, at which most of the country's top leaders are set to be replaced. Internet controls in China typically wax and wane according to the gravity of political events, but many of the recent moves are in line with a long-term drive by Chinese Presidnt Xi to harden China's internet against outside threats by exerting more control over flows of data.

As part of that push, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued a notice in January of plans to "clean up" the internet services market, including a crackdown on the use of unapproved VPNs in cross-border business activities, by March next year.

Write to Josh Chin at josh.chin@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 29, 2017 20:55 ET (00:55 GMT)