Apple, China and a Look Behind the ‘Great Firewall’

Apple’s VPN ban once again shines a light on repressive internet policies of the Chinese government

Before moving to the United States three years ago, Peter Chen spent the first three decades of his life in China. A businessman at the helm of Universal Prospect Corp. — an online marketing firm partnered with, one of the largest digital marketplaces in China — Chen grew tired of his native country’s rigid online censorship.

“It definitely affected me, because in China I can’t access Google or Facebook, and I can’t do free speech,” said Chen — now living in Los Angles —  in an interview with TheWrap. “In China, you cannot learn or discuss something the government does not want you to know.”

The “Great Firewall,” as it’s facetiously been dubbed, has stifled free speech online for years through a network of moderators, technical restraints and legislative regulations. The Chinese government blocks access to pornography and news stories that are overly critical of its Communist regime, as well as major sites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. A parallel online universe exists in China, with popular social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo, a Twitter-esque communication app, filling the void of their blocked Western analogs.

Chen said the draconian measures are “not fair for entrepreneurs” such as himself because they hamper business relations outside the country. If the government’s fleet of moderators catches a businessman on banned sites, Chen was quick to share the authority’s go-to strategy: “blackmail.”

Of course, the oppression is felt by entrepreneurs and non-business people alike in China. And recently, the Great Firewall has started to expand. Earlier this year, the Chinese government effectively banned all virtual private network (VPN) apps, requiring approval for any in use. VPN apps let users securely access and share data on encrypted networks, allowing them to circumvent censors and view restricted content. The chances of an average Chinese citizen receiving the government’s green light to use VPNs is between slim and none.

This curtailing was only exacerbated by Apple’s decision to obey the Chinese government and ban all VPN apps on the App Store last week. With nearly 45 million iPhones sold in China alone last year, this move will throw countless devices — and citizens — back behind the Great Firewall.

But in a country of 1.37 billion people, it’s impossible to control every contrarian — so the government has a game plan for its war on free speech.

“For the most part, the government’s strategy is to focus on controlling the media: controlling journalists, controlling online social media sites, controlling newspapers,” said Molly Roberts, an assistant professor of Political Science at UC San Diego. “And by controlling the media, it makes it harder for individual people to find information.”

In other words: Cut the head off the snake and watch free expression die as a result.

Professor Roberts has studied Chinese censorship for years. As a grad student at Harvard in 2013, she published, “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression,” along with Professor Gary King and Jennifer Pan, now a professor at Stanford University. Their research found that the Chinese government is most concerned with “collective action,” or coordinated movements against the ruling regime (think planned rallies).

In her upcoming book, “Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall,” Roberts argues the Chinese government has made a choice to censor through “friction” — to simply make it impossible or illegal to access banned sites — rather than fear. Its VPN decision adds to the friction, and impacts a particular segment of Chinese society. Roberts estimates five percent of the country’s urban population uses VPNs, with its users likely being: young, high-income, educated, more interested in politics, and holding stronger connections to foreigners. As China’s next generation comes of age in a digital world, its authorities are working to extinguish outside influence.

And Roberts pointed to the VPN purge as a hindrance to the nation’s economy.

“I think it does have a big cost, especially on capital, and on businesses in China who want and need to access things outside the firewall,” said Roberts. “And this crackdown on VPNs, I think, will have a big economic cost for China.”

Of course, the VPN crackdown further tightens the government’s grip around free speech. But on an earnings call earlier this week, Apple CEO Tim Cook pushed back on the criticism his company has received for its acquiescence to removing VPN apps from the app store. To Cook, keeping the iPhone in China — even with its content restrictions — is better than leaving the market for more than purely economic reasons.

“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,” said Cook. “We believe in engaging with governments even when we disagree. 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.”

But some strongly disagree with Cook’s stance.

“In removing VPN services from the App Store, [Apple], in my view, is really capitulating to a state that engages in widespread censorship and surveillance — some of the most sophisticated surveillance and censorship on the planet — in order to gain some sort of market advantage,” said Geoffrey King, professor of Media Studies at UC Berkeley. “I would say that by limiting people’s access to VPN, a decision like that puts real human beings at risk.”

A constitutional lawyer by training, King focuses on free speech issues in his “Privacy in the Digital Age” course at Berkeley. Of particular concern to King is the impact a lack of VPN access will have on activists and journalists in China, who depend on the technology to relay unfiltered news. Beyond its economic influence, King highlighted the ethical repercussions of Apple’s move to TheWrap.

“For one thing, [the removal of VPN apps is] helping to bolster a controlling and authoritative regime, and I just think that’s antithetical to what America has always professed our values to be. So for an American company to be complicit in that is disturbing.”

To a more skeptical observer, Apple’s decision to ban VPN apps — rather than run the risk of angering the Chinese government or withdraw from the market altogether — has more to do with the bottom line than Cook’s goal of helping the Chinese consumer. The biggest tech company in the world isn’t the same ubiquitous force in China as it is in America, with Apple’s smartphone market share dwindling four percent last year to below 10 percent. Its submission to government demands helps keep Apple on the playing field, and it’s already pulled a similar maneuver earlier this year when the tech titan removed the New York Times app in China.

King isn’t buying that Apple should put its business before its moral obligation to its customers. As an American company, founded and based in Silicon Valley, he believes it should work to spread liberal ideals, like free expression, anywhere it sets up shop.

“I would say both even and in some ways especially they have that moral obligation [to uphold American values abroad],” said King. “Because the consequences for people in many countries who are just doing their jobs, just engaging in peaceful assembly and speech — the ramifications for that kind of conduct is actually very beneficial for society and American foreign policy interests as well, the ramifications can be pretty extreme. They can include jail, torture and, in many places, death. China locks up huge numbers of decent folks just trying to tell the truth.”

With Russia immediately following in China’s footsteps and banning VPNs on Monday, Apple may soon have another important decision on its hands.