Apple is removing Virtual Private Network (VPN) apps in China, which allows users to circumvent the country's attempts to censor certain portions of the internet, according to multiple news reports.
People who use VPN services in the country have the ability to "bypass China's so-called 'Great Firewall,'" Reuters reported. The firewall is "aimed at restricting access to overseas sites."
One provider, Express VPN, said that Apple informed them their app would be removed "because it includes content that is illegal in China," and that they were "disappointed," according to Reuters.
"We're disappointed in this development, as it represents the most drastic measure the Chinese government has taken to block the use of VPNs to date, and we are troubled to see Apple aiding China's censorship efforts," Express VPN said in a statement on Saturday.
Reuters reported that "a number of VPN apps were still accessible on the China App store on Saturday," but there are still other companies that have had their software removed. For example VyprVPN was also taken out of the app store, according to Sunday Yokubaitis, the president of Golden Frog, the New York Times reported.
"We gladly filed an amicus brief in support of Apple in their backdoor encryption battle with the F.B.I., Yokubaitis said, according to the Times. "So we are extremely disappointed that Apple has bowed to pressure from China to remove VPN apps without citing any Chinese law or regulation that makes VPN illegal."
"We view access to Internet in China as a human rights issue, and I would expect Apple to value human rights over profits," he added.
According to both Reuters and the Times, Apple has declined to comment on the issue so far.
At the request of the Chinese government, Apple has removed certain software in prior instances as well, "but it is a new reminder of how deeply beholden the tech giant has become to Beijing at a moment when the leadership has been pushing to tighten its control over the internet," according to the Times.
The Times elaborated:
The removals signal a new push by China to control the internet. In the past, the Great Firewall has used technology to disrupt VPNs, and Beijing has shut down Chinese VPNs and even aimed a huge cyberattack at a well-known foreign site hosting code that circumvented the filters.
But they also mark the first time China has successfully used its influence with a major foreign tech platform, like Apple, to push back against the software makers.
However there were still VPN apps that were accessible inside China and users with a billing address outside of the country "will still be able to access VPN apps from other branches of the App Store," Reuters reported. It's not currently clear if those services will eventually be removed as well. But the move still highlights a major crackdown from the government.
"Beijing has shut down dozens of China-based providers and it has been targeting overseas services as it bids to tighten its control over the internet, especially ahead of the Communist Party congress in August," according to Reuters.
Some critics have expressed concern and outrage over the news, including notable National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden who has long advocated for privacy and internet freedoms.