US Senators take Apple to task over China VPN app removal

Apple’s decision to remove a large number of VPNs from the App Store in China has come under fresh scrutiny after two US Senators wrote to the companies CEO Tim Cook enquire why the company was “enabling Chinese censorship”.

The letter has been sent by Senators. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and was released publicly late last week. In it, they expressed concern about reports that Apple was complicit in Chinese extreme online censorship regime and helping it to suppress information, opinion, and communication.

“VPN’s allow users to access the uncensored Internet in China and other countries that restrict Internet freedom,” they wrote. “If these reports are true, we are concerned that Apple may be enabling the Chinese government’s censorship and surveillance of the Internet.”

They went on to describe China as a country with “an abysmal human rights record, including with respect to the rights of free expression and free access to information, both online and offline” and refer to the Reporters without Borders report which described China as the “enemy of the internet.”

Highlighting hypocrisy

They then went on to reference the speech given by Cook last year when he was given a free speech award and said that Apple was committed to enabling freedoms around the world which gave people the power to “speak up”.

Pointedly, the Senator’s wrote in their letter that. “While Apple’s many contributions to the global exchange of information are admirable, removing VPN apps that allow individuals in China to evade the Great Firewall and access the Internet privately does not enable people in China to ‘speak up’”.

“To the contrary, if Apple complies with such demands from the Chinese government it inhibits free expression for users across China, particularly in light of the Cyberspace Administration of China’s new regulations targeting online anonymity.”

They went on to cite other examples of Apple’s compliance with the censorship demands of the Chinese Communist regime, including the removal of the New York Times app from their Chinese app store.

Ten Questions

They concluded by posing ten questions to the Apple CEO about the decision to pull VPN apps from their Chinese App store. These included whether Apple made formal comments on the new Cybersecurity legislation in China was has been used to ban VPNs, whether the VPN apps were removed after a specific request from the Chinese regime, and whether they had made any efforts to try and reintroduce them.

They also asked exactly how many VPN apps had been removed. This information has never been confirmed, although speculation at the time put the figure at around 60.

Along with a rather snarky question asking Apple to highlight instances where it has criticised the Chinese online censorship regime or spoken out in support of freedom of expression in China, they also asked about Apple’s involvement in their so-called World Internet Conference, a showpiece event which attempts to legitimise the Chinese Communist Party’s internet policies.

Apple ignoring mounting criticism

Apple is still yet to comment publicly on the removal of these VPN apps from their App Store in China, so it will be fascinating to see how they respond to this letter from two senior US Senators, which makes all the points that many tech commentators have been asked since August, when this story first emerged.

Of course, they are not the first people to criticise Apple over this move. The United Nations special rapporteur on opinion and expression, David Kaye, has also written to Cook expressing his concerns. Any response he has received does not seem to have made it into the public domain yet. They will, however, be obliged to respond to this letter from two US Senators publicly.

With the so-called ‘People’s Congress’ still ongoing Beijing, internet freedoms are about as bad in China as they have been for a long while. It remains to be seen whether things will ease a little once that Communist Party event has concluded, but recent trends suggest not.

Fortunately, despite the best efforts of the Communist Party and Apple, VPNs are still helping plenty of Chinese people to access the internet free of surveillance and restrictions. But with the formal ban expected to come into effect in February next year, Chinese internet users would be advisable to move fast to sign up.

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