The VPN Issue in China

3 08 2017

A disappointing decision

The theory …

The right to Internet access states that all people must be able to access the Internet in order to exercise and enjoy their rights to freedom of expression and opinion and other fundamental human rights.
Non-binding resolution
of the United Nations Human Rights Council

The reality …

"We follow the law wherever we do business."

Sure, Tim, you have to like all other foreign companies otherwise you can't do your business.

Tim Cook's full statement …

Now turning to China, let me comment on what I assumed is at the root of your question about this VPN issue. Let me just address that head on. The central government in China back in 2015 started tightening the regulations associated with VPN apps, and we have a number of those on our store. Essentially, as a 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, and we were required by the government to remove some of the VPN apps from the App Store that don't meet these new regulations. We understand that those same requirements are on other app stores, and as we checked through that, that is the case.

Today there are actually still hundreds of VPN apps on the App Store, including hundreds by developers that are outside China, and so there continues to be VPN apps available. We would obviously rather not remove the apps, but like we do in other countries, we follow the law wherever we do business. And 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. And so we believe in engaging with governments even when we disagree.

And in this particular case, now back to commenting on this one, we're hopeful that over time the restrictions that we're seeing are loosened because innovation really requires freedom to collaborate and communicate, and I know that that is a major focus there. And so that's what we're seeing from that point of view.

Some folks have tried to link it to the U.S. situation last year, and they're very different. In the case of the U.S., the law in the U.S. supported us, which was very clear. In the case of China, the law is also very clear there. And like we would if the U.S. changed the law here, we'd have to abide by them in both cases, that doesn't mean that we don't state our point of view in the appropriate way. We always do that. And so hopefully that's a little bit probably more than you wanted to know, but I wanted to tell you."

While China is home of the world's largest number of internet users, a 2015 report by US think tank Freedom House found that the country had the most restrictive online use policies of 65 nations it studied, ranking below Iran and Syria.

But China has maintained that its various forms of web censorship are necessary for protecting its national security.

The national VPN crackdown comes after the passing of a controversial cybersecurity bill last November that tightened restrictions on online freedom of speech and imposed new rules on service providers.

As the BBC reports, Sunday Yokubaitis, president of VyprVPN, commented:

If Apple views accessibility as a human right, we would hope Apple will likewise recognize internet access as a human right (the UN has even ruled it as such) and would choose human rights over profits.

Are there limits where companies should stop making their business in countries infringing human rights?

It's a very difficult question and experiences in other contexts show that stopping all (business) activities give rise to silence. To not talk to each other any longer helps as little as continuing businesses.

I don't know what to say more but I hope human rights are still on the agenda of all companies making businesses in China (and elsewhere).

Related …

Removal of VPN Apps

Top 10 Countries with Internet Censorship

Thanks for reading.


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