Apple has removed approximately 60 Virtual Private Network (VPN) apps from its Chinese App Store. The Chinese government forced the decision on Apple by requiring VPN services to register with the government before they can sell their services in China.
For legitimate and trustworthy VPNs, this simply isn’t an option. That’s because VPN services allow their Chinese clients to privately and securely bypass censorship imposed by the Communist Party of China. That censorship is imposed by the government, using what is commonly referred to as the Great Firewall of China (GFC).
The GFC stops Chinese citizens from accessing much-loved sites including Gmail, Google, YouTube, Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Github, Soundcloud, Pinterest, DropBox, and news sites like Bloomberg, the Independent, and many more.
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For Chinese people who want to keep abreast of news in the West, or use popular services like everyone else in the world, a VPN is a blessing. A VPN allows them to beat the GFC by pretending to be in another country. This recovers their access to blocked content and lets them use the internet as if they were in that remote location.
The Chinese government has been cracking down on the use of VPNs to overcome its restrictions. In 2015, China passed a law that required VPN firms to register with the government. Up until now, that law has not been fully enforced. Since January 2017, however, the government has begun taking the law more seriously. As such, pressure has been mounting on Apple to do something about unlicensed VPN providers. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has made the following comment about the sudden removal of around 60 VPNs from the App Store:
“We would rather not remove apps, but like we do in other countries we follow the law wherever we do business.”
Apple has been pushing heavily to increase its presence within China. The firm is in the process of opening a data center there. That data center will be run in cooperation with a local Chinese firm, in order to comply with the Communist Party’s strict cybersecurity rules. It is because of these expansion plans that Apple needs to comply with requests from the Chinese government. In 2015, Apple sold more iPhones in China than it did in the US. That puts things into perspective.
This isn’t the first time that Apple has complied with a request from the Communist Party. In January, Apple removed the New York Times app from its App Store in China. Many people, including Edward Snowden, expressed distaste at the decision.
Unfortunately for the VPNs that have been removed from the App Store, obtaining a license from the Chinese government isn’t an option. VPNs provide subscribers with their services discretely, in order to give them privacy.
For this reason, legitimate and trusted VPN services such as Private Internet Access and ExpressVPN have now been removed from Apple’s Chinese App Store. For Chinese citizens, that means an inability to access those well-known VPN services, as their websites are already blocked by Chinese Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
There are around one million foreigners living in China. For those international citizens who already have a VPN, their service will continue to work as it did before. Anybody who doesn’t already have an iOS VPN, however, may now find it harder to get one from within China. However, ExpressVPN has released the following statement:
“Users in China accessing a different territory’s App Store (i.e. they have indicated their billing address to be outside of China) are not impacted; they can download the iOS app and continue to receive updates as before.”
As such, it would appear that people within China who bought and registered their phone outside the country will still be able to access VPNs, and VPN software updates, as usual.
Unblock VPNs in the iOS App Store
This may actually be a viable workaround for Chinese citizens too. All you need to do is create a new Apple ID and register it to a geographic region outside of China (without a linked credit card).
To do this, follow these simple steps:
- Go to the App Store.
- Bring up the menu by swiping down and click the button with your Apple ID.
- Click “Sign Out.”
- Search for a free app with the word “Get” next to it. It really doesn’t matter which free app you select, as long as it is free. You need to find a free app so that you can tell the App Store that you do NOT wish to set a payment method later on.
- Install the free app by clicking on “Get.”
- Select Create New Apple ID.
- Enter an email and password different to the email address that you usually use (that is, different to your regular Apple ID).
- Set the country to one where VPNs are available, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, or the United Kingdom.
- Agree to the terms and conditions.
- Enter your personal details (you can use your real name or a fake name) and apply security questions and answers.
- Under PAYMENT METHOD, select None. Now enter the billing information with a realistic address for the country you have used.
- You will now receive an email with a verification code. Enter the code and click “verify.”
- Tap “Continue” and you will return to the App Store.
You should now be able to see VPNs in the App Store again!
Remember: You will only be able to receive updates for your VPN if you are signed in to the Apple ID you used to subscribe to it, so please don’t forget your login details and password for the specially created Apple ID.
Some VPNs Still Available
Any VPNs that remain in the Chinese App Store are not to be trusted. Those VPNs have likely registered with the Chinese government. This means they’ve probably agreed to hand over user data, including connection logs and (more importantly) usage logs.
This means that the VPNs still hanging around on the iTunes app store are highly insecure. Don’t use them! Commenting on which VPNs people can expect to find on the Chinese app store now, a spokesperson from GreatFire.org said,
“Those that protect their users’ security will be removed.”
“I am deeply concerned by decisions such as those by Russia and China to block off VPNs since these are mostly used by normal people who wish to access and exchange information in private. This proposed action by Russia and China is prima facie neither necessary nor proportionate in a democratic society and I plan to attempt to engage with both countries about such matters.”
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