Apple CEO Tim Cook on China Censors’ VPN Ban: ‘We Believe in Engaging With Governments Even When We Disagree’

Cook says Apple’s much-criticized decision is in the best interests of the Chinese people

Apple chief executive Tim Cook says his decision to remove VPN apps from the App Store in China — to the delight of Chinese censors — is an attempt to stay engaged with the country and is in “the best interest” of Chinese citizens.

Cook has been criticized for removing the VPN apps, which critics of the Chinese government use to conceal themselves from oppressive censors and speak more freely. VPN apps are also used in China to access restricted content, including news stories, pornography, and social media sites like Facebook.

Cook said on the company’s third-quarter earnings calls Tuesday that “we follow the law wherever we do business.”

“The central government in China back in 2015 started tightening the regulations associated with VPN apps. We have a number of those on our store. Essentially, as a requirement for someone to operate a VPN they have to have a license from the government there. Earlier this year, they began a renewed effort to enforce that policy. We were required by the government to remove some of the VPN apps from the app store that don’t meet these new regulations,” said Cook on the call.

“We would obviously rather not remove the apps, but like we do in other countries we follow the law wherever we do business,” he added.

Some have seen a potential opportunity for Apple if it had threatened to pull its business from China over the sanctions.

“It may actually be a better business decision for [Apple] to have held the line and shown the moral high ground for the rest of the world, which are the buyers of most of their iPhones,” said Stuart Madnick, Professor of Information Technologies at MIT Sloan School of Management, in an interview with TheWrap.

Such a maneuver would have massive economic repercussions on the world’s largest tech company. Apple sold about 45 million phones in China last year, while its market share dipped from 13.6 percent to below 10 percent. But Cook said the best move for Chinese consumers is to stay in the market.

“We strongly believe participating in markets and bringing benefits to customers is in the best interest of the folks there and in other countries as well,” Cook said.

“We believe in engaging with governments even when we disagree,” he continued. “This particular case, we’re hopeful that over time the restrictions we’re seeing are lessened, because innovation really requires freedom to collaborate and communicate. I know that is a major focus there. That’s sort of what we’re seeing from that point of view.”

Apple beat earnings expectations, and its stock hit an all-time high after hours.