t’s not a good day for internet freedom. Just over a year ago, the UN ruled that “the same rights people have offline must also be protected online,” although the non-binding resolution has some notable dissenters including Russia and China. So it should come as little surprise that a year on, both nations aren’t taking the resolution terribly seriously.
Blocked in Beijing
Let’s start with China. Back in January, the country’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced that developers creating Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) must obtain a license from the government. VPNs give citizens a work around the so-called “great firewall of China” which not only censors politically sensitive websites, but also prevents access to other websites blocked in the country for fairly predictable reasons: Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube amongst others.
This weekend, Apple has complied with the tough regulations, banning at least three VPN apps from the Chinese App Store: ExpressVPN, VyprVPN and StarVPN.
In a statement to TechCrunch, Apple justified the move is a fairly prosaic way, treating the ban as just a case of following local laws as they would with any other country. “Earlier this year China’s MIIT announced that all developers offering VPNs must obtain a license from the government. We have been required to remove some VPN apps in China that do not meet the new regulations. These apps remain available in all other markets where they do business.”
That’s fine, except China isn’t just any other country, and many are appalled that a company of Apple’s declared values would abet political censorship. Golden Frog, VyprVPN’s distributor, said it would be appealing to Apple, arguing that it hoped the company “would choose human rights over profits.”
It may not be that simple. Apple makes much of its hardware in China, and it’s becoming a big sales market too. China doesn’t tend to mess around when Western companies put their foot down on censorship issues, as Google did back in 2010 – the search engine has been banned in the country since 2012.
Russia following suit?
Meanwhile, 3,598 miles away from Beijing in Moscow, similar ominous mood music is playing. President Vladimir Putin has just signed a law banning VPNs and proxies in Russia from 1 November. This, along with another law that requires chat apps to attach phone numbers from 2018, is ostensibly justified as a means to block access to extremist content, but critics view the crackdown as yet more political censorship. Especially given we’re just seven months away from the next Russian presidential election.
The move will mean Russia joins the likes of Syria and Iran in blocking the use of VPNs. All in all, it’s not a good time for the freedom of the internet – no matter what non-binding UN resolutions may tell you.