BEIJING – Moves by business giants Apple and Amazon to stop consumers from using censorship-skirting apps in China have renewed questions about the extent U.S. companies are willing to work with authorities to operate in the vast but tightly controlled Chinese market.
Apple chief Tim Cook attempted to defend the company's decision to remove dozens of apps designed to circumvent censorship from the Chinese version of its app store.
In an earning's call for Apple's quarterly financial report, Cook said China tightened its rules on virtual private networks, or vpns, in 2015, and was now making a renewed push to enforce them.
"We would obviously rather not remove the apps, but like we do in other countries, we follow the law wherever we do business," he said Tuesday.
By helping Chinese authorities curb the use of many popular virtual private networks, or VPNs, U.S. tech companies are seen as helping the Communist Party bolster what is already the world's most elaborate and sophisticated censorship regime, often called the "Great Firewall."
In addition to blocking the likes of Google and Facebook, China's censors shape what is published online, pull content deemed politically sensitive and, according to a recent study, even intercept images being sent via chat apps.
Amazon also was in the spotlight Wednesday after disclosures that the company's Chinese partner, Beijing Sinnet Technology, sent emails to clients advising them to delete tools used to circumvent censorship. The news was first reported by the New York Times.
An employee told The Washington Post that Sinnet sent clients emails last Friday and again on Monday warning they must eliminate any content that violates Chinese telecom laws. The instructions came from China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the employee said.
On Wednesday, calls to Amazon Web Services' China office went unanswered. (Amazon founder and chief Jeffrey Bezos owns The Post.)
When China's first and only winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo, died in state custody last month, news of his death was all-but scrubbed from the Web. On some platforms, the candle emoji was blocked.
To get around these restriction, millions of Chinese individuals and businesses use VPNs. Beijing knows this, but has thus far let the practice continue, in part because it is good for business and aids academic research.
It is not yet clear how the latest drive to regulate VPNs will play out. In the earnings call, Apple's Cook stressed that they had removed some, but not all apps. The fact that many VPNs remain could mean the government is focused on regulating the VPN industry, not eliminating it altogether, leaving room for some use.
For an sector focused on privacy, that's still bad news.
"Apple claims to just follow the law, but it's just a convenient excuse," said Martin Johnson, the pseudonymous co-founder of GreatFire.org, a website that monitors China's Internet filtering and maintains an app to help Internet users get past the restrictions. "In fact they are actively helping the Chinese government expand its control globally."
"When Apple removes an app from the app store of a given country, it affects all users who have registered with an address in that country, regardless of their physical location," he added.
"This means that thanks to Apple, Beijing gets a degree of control of Chinese citizens anywhere in the world."