Apple’s decision to drop privacy apps in China might not be the last of its kind

Apple’s (AAPL) sudden removal of an entire category of privacy apps from its Chinese-market App Store should be upsetting news. But it shouldn’t be unexpected.

Something like this was bound to happen when a government that strictly controls its citizens’ access to information meets a smartphone vendor that strictly controls its users’ access to apps. And if Apple wants to continue to sell its devices to China’s citizens, it’s going to have to play by China’s rules.

What’s more, this probably won’t be the last time Apple finds itself in such a situation.

Why “VPN” matters—especially in China

The apps in question provide virtual-private-network services, which offer encrypted connections from a device to the rest of the internet, ensuring that your internet provider and any other third parties can’t see what websites you’ve visited.

VPNs remain something of a niche app in the U.S. A survey conducted last June found that only 13% of Americans understood a VPN’s ability to shield your privacy on open, public Wi-Fi networks.

Such apps can be tricky to set up, and require complete trust in the company running the service, as cybersecurity journalist Brian Krebs notes in this excellent essay: The VPN company will know every site you visit.

Apple has removed virtual private network apps from its App Store at the request of the Chinese government. (image: AP Photo)

But in countries like China and Russia with a history of snooping on internet traffic, a VPN’s ability to encrypt your online traffic is essential to stop such routine government surveillance.

You may also need it strictly on functional grounds: Without using a VPN app during my recent visit to Shanghai for the CES Asia conference, I risked not being able to use Google (GOOG, GOOGL), Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR), which are all routinely blocked in China.

Precedents in the U.S.

When the Chinese government demanded that Apple remove VPN apps that didn’t have newly mandatory government licenses from China’s version of the App Store, Beijing knew Apple could fulfill that directive and do so quickly.

“Apple removed us from the Chinese App Store without any warning,” explained Sunday Yokubaitis, president of the Austin-based VPN service Golden Frog. He forwarded a vague notice from Apple saying its VyprVPN app “included content that is illegal in China.”

But Apple has a history of exercising its control over the App Store — the only way everyday users can…

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