'By banning unregistered VPNs, and asserting more control over those that continue to operate, China will be better able to inspect traffic coming in and out of the country.'
Apple is defending its recent decision to remove many virtual private network services from the App Store in China despite criticism by several VPN providers and privacy advocates. The move, in response to government demands, comes as Russia also announced a new VPN ban.
These recent restrictions are enacted as private companies increasingly look for options to protect their confidential information when visiting employees communicate in foreign nations.
When asked about the recent events in China, Peter Micek, an adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, said businesses may want to "consider ways to pressure Apple to push back against the government's demand, rather than banning trustworthy VPN services that they depend on."
For its part, Apple defended its decision. "We would obviously rather not remove the apps, but, like we do in other countries, we follow the law wherever we do business," Apple CEO Tim Cook said in an Aug. 1 company earnings call .
He explained that in 2015 the Chinese government "started tightening the regulations associated with VPN apps. We have a number of those on our store. Essentially, as requirement for someone to operate a VPN, they have to have a license from the government there. Earlier this year, they began a renewed effort to enforce that policy. We were required by the government to remove some of the VPN apps from the app store that don't meet these new regulations."
However, he noted that there are "still hundreds of VPN apps on the App Store, including hundreds by developers outside China."
VPNs are popular with U.S. employees visiting foreign nations and who want to secure company data, reduce the risk of cybercrime and keep proprietary information private.
"By banning unregistered VPNs, and asserting more control over those that continue to operate, China will be better able to inspect traffic coming in and out of the country," Micek said. "Businesses should assume that the government can read and even alter their internet traffic transiting through China."
"Preventing unauthorized access to existing data and accounts is paramount," he advised. "Steps to mitigate exposure of confidential information include setting up new, temporary devices and email and messaging accounts for those traveling to and from China. Policies on digital security should be developed, in coordination with technical as well as legal experts, and staff should be trained in best practices."
News of the removing of apps was announced by some of the impacted companies. For example, last week, ExpressVPN reported that its iOS app was removed from the China App Store. In a blog post , the company called Apple's decision "surprising and unfortunate." Initially, ExpressVPN said its "preliminary research" showed "that all major VPN apps for iOS have been removed."
"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," ExpressVPN added in the blog post. "ExpressVPN strongly condemns these measures, which threaten free speech and civil liberties."
Another VPN provider, Golden Frog, also reported on how VPNs were removed from the app store.
"Golden Frog's core mission is to fight for a free and open Internet experience for users around the world, so we will file an appeal with Apple—but I am not hopeful," according to a company blog post written by Golden Frog president Sunday Yokubaitis. "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."
"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," the blog post added. "We view Internet access—and unrestricted Internet access—as a human rights issue and will continue to fight for a free and open Internet."
The move by Apple comes a few weeks after service disruptions to WhatsApp in China, which led to speculation that government officials may be trying to crack down on encrypted communications.