Mr. Cook, Where is the Censorship Red Line for Apple?

Tim Cook addressed Apple removing 60+ major VPN apps from its China App Store last weekend on this week’s Apple Q3 earnings call:

“We would obviously rather not remove the apps, but like we do in other countries, we follow the law wherever we do business. We strongly believe that participating in markets and bringing benefits to customers is in the best interest of the folks there, and in other countries as well. We believe in engaging with governments, even when we disagree. In this particular case, back to commenting on this one, we hope that over time, the restrictions we’re seeing will be loosened, because innovation requires freedom to collaborate and communicate, and I know that is a major focus there. That’s sort of what we’re seeing from that point of view. Some folks have tried to link it to the US situation last year — they’re very different. In the case of the US, the law in the US supported us. It was very clear. In the case of China, the law is also very clear there, and like we would if the US changed the law here, we would have to abide by it in both cases. That doesn’t mean we don’t state our point of view, in the appropriate way — we always do that. “

While I appreciate Mr. Cook recognizing the importance of this issue and addressing it directly, his response has left several questions in my mind:

What is the Censorship Red Line for Apple?

It seems that Mr. Cook is saying the red line for Apple is whether the law “supports” the app. We fundamentally disagree with Mr. Cook’s assertion that the law is “very clear.”  It is also disingenuous to assert Apple’s position against the US government during last year’s encryption battle without dispute. In that case Apple was willing to fight for their position, and we signed on to the legal brief that supported them. The only thing that is “very clear” is that this time Apple went down without a fight. What precedent does this set for Apple in other countries with repressive regimes? Internet freedoms worldwide have been on the decline for the past 6 years, and when restrictive countries like China continue to eliminate Internet freedoms via the passage of new legislation, restrictions and censorship, they set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world. We saw this happen just this week; right on the heels of China’s announced VPN ban legislation, Russia also banned VPNs. While Russia is also notoriously restrictive, the timing and expedient passage of the new Russian VPN ban law can hardly be seen as a coincidence.­­­ Will Apple become the Minister of Information for these repressive regimes?

What Chinese law is Golden Frog and other VPN Providers violating?

It appears that Chinese VPN law applies to Chinese telecommunication providers in China. We don’t offer any Internet/telecommunications services in China. All of our servers are located outside China. We only offer a software application to Chinese users via the App Store. Why would Golden Frog, a Swiss company, with no servers or employees in China be required to register with the Chinese government? It appears a law is being used to remove our App from the App Store, without any meaningful way for us to comply with the law as we don’t offer Internet services in China. We are currently seeking legal counsel to help answer the many legal questions, and will provide updates as we learn more. But, regardless, I remain disappointed that Apple has not recognized the gravity of the censorship issue and chosen to not clearly explain the reasoning behind the decision, including what law is violated and it applies to VPN providers outside of China.

Will natively-supported VPNs be removed from iOS in the future?

VPNs are currently natively supported in iOS. That’s why our users can continue to use VyprVPN on iOS without the app by using our manual iOS VPN setup instructions. But, does this mean that Apple might be forced to remove VPN support from iOS for Chinese users in the future? It seems unlikely that Apple would branch iOS with a Chinese only version, but is this a possibility in the future? If so, what are the implications for technology and innovation?

Will Apple towing to the Chinese government ultimately prove to be fruitless for their bottom line? 

Local Chinese companies, such as Huawei and BBK, dominate the smartphone market with Apple falling into 4th place. If Alibaba can provide online shopping,  Baidu can provide Internet search and Huawei/BBK can make smartphones, why does China need Amazon, Google or Apple?

Apple fought for the rights of Internet users once before, and I can only hope that they will change course. Join us in telling Apple how damaging their actions are, and expressing concern over the dangerous precedent they have set.

Sunday Yokubaitis

Sunday has been president of Golden Frog since its founding in 2009, and guides the company's global strategy and vision. He is honored to work with a team that's committed to delivering a secure and open Internet experience to people around the world.

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