Apple's removal of apps from its Chinese app store enabling internet users to get around the country's censorship regime has sparked criticism from users and service providers alike, who called the step "disappointing."
The company said in a statement on Sunday that it had been "required to remove some VPN apps in China that do not meet the new regulations," referring to new licensing requirements announced earlier this year by Beijing's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
Virtual private networks, or VPNs, are widely used in China to scale the complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known as the Great Firewall, and access content outside China.
StarVPN and ExpressVPN confirmed that their services are no longer available to Apple customers in China.
"This is very dangerous precedent," StarVPN said via its Twitter account, while ExpressVPN said it was disappointed by the move.
"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. ExpressVPN strongly condemns these measures, which threaten free speech and civil liberties," the company said in a statement.
A VPN user who asked to remain anonymous said the move comes as the ruling Chinese Communist Party tightens its grip on online content ahead of a key congress later in the year.
But he said he doesn't expect the controls to be relaxed any time soon.
"It's not just the 19th Party Congress, because it will carry on like this afterwards, too," the user said, adding that other circumvention tools remain.
"There are other channels we can use to scale the Great Firewall," he said. "But ordinary users who aren't used to technology won't be able to."
Profits valued over rights
Former leader of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement Joshua Wong hit out at Apple's move.
"Apple values profit over human rights since it removed VPN services from China app store because of the pressure from Beijing regulators," Wong tweeted on Monday.
Earlier this month, China's top three internet service providers were given notice to prevent the country's cell phone users from using circumvention tools to view online content hosted outside the Great Firewall by next February.
State-run China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom were told to ensure that their 1.3 billion subscribers can't use VPNs to access blocked content, while popular VPN provider GreenVPN was shut down in early July.
Chinese internet users have become adept at circumventing the complex array of blocks, filters, and human censorship deployed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to control what its citizens can see online.
After censors succeeded in blocking Tor, VPNs became the tool of choice for "scaling the wall," in Chinese online parlance, and are used as much by government institutions, state-owned companies, and educational establishments as by the general public.
While officials have denied a ban on VPNs, the licensing program suggests the government may be gearing up to allow only users it trusts to scale the Great Firewall.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.