Imagine being a software developer and having three policemen come to your house that they managed to track via a web address and demand to see your computer. And then turn on the camera and film you as they tell you to take down the app you developed and sold on Apple’s App Store.
And all this because you developed and sold a piece of software that gave access to people to go around the restrictions and limited access to the internet in China.
This software is called a virtual private network (shortly VPN) and uses servers outside the country to provide a secure link to the internet. This technology is essential in China where there are very high restrictions when it comes to internet content. China’s residents cannot access social media platforms or foreign news sites unless they use the VPNs.
The software developer in question didn’t want to identify himself but did agree to a phone interview. He told us that the policemen in plain clothes insisted on seeing his computer. They didn’t produce a warrant of any kind and did not respond when he asked what exact law he had violated. He initially refused to co-operate but had to comply out of fear of detention.
What they wanted him to do is take his app off the Apple’s App Store and promised it all to be over after that.
Just months ago, his business was legal. But then Chinese government went and changed the regulation so that the VPN sellers now needed a license.
Apple complied with this request and two weeks ago removed a hefty amount of VPN apps from the App Store due to the apps in question not having the license needed. There are still a number of those apps on the App Store – the ones that meet the government regulations.
Apple’s Chief Executive Tim Cook commented on the change and said that the company would rather not have done it, but it needed to comply with the law.
Still, Apple’s mobile device can still be set up to connect to VPN servers manually if users know the details required to be entered in their settings menu.
Apple’s business in China seems to be of mixed outlooks: while the sales of the iPhones have dipped, the App Store is doing great. Apple has just named its first China-wide managing director, and it’s in the middle of a multi billion dollar localization project to establish a data center and more of its cloud computing.
Despite the allegations of the firm fighting back against the government narrowing the internet access, it’s clear that Apple’s future depends on the firm complying with China’s regulations.
But this move against free access to the internet isn’t just about Apple and censorship – some think it also has to do with competition.
With your headquarters being in New York and a branch office in Shanghai, you have multiple ways of getting your internet traffic out of China. There have been significant price drops for those facilities, but not from China Telecom.
Another developer that did not want to be named told us his opinion on the subject, saying that he thinks the other reason for the market clean up is the protection of the monopoly position of China’s big state owned telecoms companies.
As for the future, he thinks the government has no desire to shut down all the VPNs, even though Beijing has the technology to do that, in his opinion. They can see who is using them, and they can shut them down instantly, but he believes they want to control, not closure.