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Apple's taking some heat this week for banning an app that allowed Chinese internet users trapped behind the country's Great Firewall to access the rest of the online world.
The web denizens in China have long relied on Virtual Private Networks to evade internet restrictions, while Beijing's censors continue to tighten those restrictions and block any new tools used to circumvent censorship—an ongoing game of cat and mouse.
Now it looks like the cat may have a powerful ally in Apple. The company recently removed the app OpenDoor from the Chinese version of iTunes, Radio Free Asia reported. The VPN app had been available for about a year and was gaining popularity. At the time it was removed, it had been downloaded about 800,000 times, and some 2,000 Chinese users were downloading the app each day. It was also popular in other cyber-restricted countries like Iran and Pakistan.
The app works by rerouting traffic through its servers to get around ISP blocks. It also advertises as a way to browse anonymously, by randomizing IP addresses to protect users’ identity.
The company axed the app without explanation, the station reported. But after being pressed by developers (who asked to remain anonymous), the company responded that the app “includes content that is illegal in China.” Apple's policy states that developers must obey the local laws of any place where its products are available.
Apple's now being accused of putting profits over principle. One Chinese internet user commented on Radio Free Asia that "Apple is determined to have a share of the huge cake which is the Chinese internet market. Without strict self-censorship, it cannot enter the Chinese market." Another user said the move shows "the censorship of Apple has reached a whole new level." And some are worried the ban could have chilling effects for other iOS developers with an eye toward promoting free information.
Apple has sided with the government censors before. It removed an iOS app that gave access to certain books banned in China, and another that offered US news. It's also banned apps that refer to certain activists like the Dalai Lama. As Computerworld pointed out, that's pretty ironic considering one of Apple's ongoing advertising campaigns extols the virtues of "thinking different," and features none other the Dalai Lama himself as an example of that axiom.
The latest blow to internet freedom could be part of a larger unhappy trend. A report published yesterday found that internet freedom is on the decline around the world, as governments become increasingly comfortable wielding their power to restrict access to the web, and censorship tools become more sophisticated. According to the report, China’s “elaborate technological apparatus for system internet censorship” is leading the way.