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Apple's Ethics Dilemma in China

Freedom of information advocates are monitoring the technology giant after it removed software allowing users to bypass the Great Firewall from its China App Store.
The Apple Store in Beijing, China.

The Apple Store in Beijing, China.

Top digital rights advocates are keeping tabs on Apple's next moves in China, where the American technology giant appears to have removed censorship-circumvention software from its App Store. Advocates argue that this amounts to a crackdown on freedom of information—one channeled through a United States-based company.

Many Chinese Internet users download virtual private network (VPN) software in order to navigate to websites that are otherwise blocked by Beijing's so-called Great Firewall. The VPN routes Internet connections to servers outside of China, in countries where Internet access remains unrestricted. From there, users are able to view media blocked in China, including news, social media, and porn.

VPNs are used not only by people searching for news from the outside world, but also international companies seeking to connect to company home servers. Those companies also often find it necessary to navigate to blocked websites like Twitter and the New York Times. This means that Beijing faces the conflicting challenges of making China an attractive environment for foreign business and investment and continuing to censor media it deems controversial and subversive to the country's one-party rule.

Apple Chief Executive Office Tim Cook said on a call with investors Tuesday that, following a push by the Chinese government to get VPN providers to obtain a Chinese-government-issued license, any software providers removed from its China App Store had failed to obtain those credentials, according to an unofficial transcript of the call sent by Apple's press team to Pacific Standard. Chinese government-approved VPN providers continue to offer their software on the App Store, the transcript added.

The press team offered no further comment on its decision to remove the unlicensed VPN services, and to discuss, more broadly, Apple and Silicon Valley's track record in the People's Republic.

One of the VPN providers removed from China's App Store, British Virgin Islands-based ExpressVPN blasted Apple's decision to bar the software from its China-based users. "We are troubled to see Apple aiding China's censorship efforts," ExpressVPN said in a press release late last week.

Some have suggested the decision to block the VPN software may be a temporary one, and Apple may simply be following the traditional ebb and flow of Chinese censorship at key moments on the nation's political calendar—rather than taking concrete actions toward lasting censorship.

"This is certainly another dangerous step on the slippery slope of acquiescing to demands of the Chinese government."

Eva Galperin, cybersecurity director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group leading the charge to defend digital civil liberties, says she's waiting to see if the VPNs make a comeback in the next few months.

"Crackdowns on VPNs and censorship circumvention technology in China are cyclical," Galperin says, reminding that censorship tends to tighten at critical moments, like China's upcoming National Congress. "What could be happening is Apple is giving in, expecting to put VPNs back a few months. But it could also be that they do not plan to put them back on the App Store, in which case I'll be the first person to criticize them."

"I will certainly be keeping a very close eye on the aftermath of the National Congress," Galperin adds.

But not everyone is so optimistic.

"This is certainly another dangerous step on the slippery slope of acquiescing to demands of the Chinese government, following Apple's decision to store Chinese users' data locally," says Maya Wang, senior China researcher at international civil liberties advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

Many information technology companies—including Facebook and Twitter—during both the Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring movements prided themselves on the widespread use of their websites to organize the socio-political factions. And many Silicon Valley executives themselves are vocal proponents of a school of thought championed by the likes of late Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz that all information should be made free and accessible to all.

But many U.S. information technology companies looking to enter the Chinese market face a dilemma: Operate in China, indispensable owing to the sheer number of potential consumers there, and abide by Chinese regulations; or maintain that all people—not only in the U.S.—should enjoy free access to the news and other media.

Facebook, in what appears to be a telling example of this dilemma, garnered much criticism following a Wall Street Journal report in January that the company had attempted to develop tools to censor politically sensitive posts in China. The gesture was one of many designed to return the social media powerhouse to China after it was banned there in 2009.

For the Human Rights Watch's Wang, it's clear what message Silicon Valley must send: Whatever freedoms are enjoyed in the U.S. are also deserved in China. Wang charges that tech companies have a responsibility to honor American principles abroad, regardless of market considerations.

"Apple has stood with other tech giants to resist U.S. mass-surveillance," Wang says. "It should do the same with regard to the Chinese government's efforts to strangle its netizens' access to free information."