Apple: Sure, we banned VPN iOS apps in China, but, um, er, art!

iGiant didn't want to aid censorship, but $10bn in revenue is $10bn in revenue

Smartphone showing Chinese flag

Apple has told the US government it cooperated with China's demands to block VPN services so it could get other concessions from the Middle Kingdom on human rights.

The Cupertino watchmaker said in a letter [PDF] to Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Ted Cruz (R-Zodiac) that while it did cave to China's demands it axe VPN apps from its software store, it only did so in order to continue selling other products that helped advance human rights and speech on the mainland.

"We believe that our presence in China helps promote greater openness and facilitates the free flow of ideas and information," explained Apple's vice president for public policy Cynthia Hogan.

"Our products and services offer our customers opportunities to communicate in many forms, including through personal communications services, podcasts, photos, and millions of apps."

Both Cruz and Leahy earlier grilled Apple for its readiness to ban privacy tools from its iThings, which can be used by people in China to circumvent the tight restrictions the government places on access to what it deems "inappropriate" material, such as websites critical of the state.

Apple argued that, in order to get a wider set of stuff into the hands of citizens on the Chinese mainland, it had to agree to strip encrypted VPN tools from the iOS App Store in China. Now, Apple claims it is still working with China in hopes of eventually getting that ban lifted.

"We believe in the critical importance of an open society in which information flows freely," Hogan told the senators. "We will continue to express that view."

Apple also considers China to be one of its key business markets. In its last quarterly report, execs said the Greater China region accounted [PDF] for $9.8bn in revenues, up 12 per cent from 2016.

Leahy, meanwhile, wasn't quite sold on Apple's justification, noting that it and other tech companies shouldn't limit people's free speech just to make a fast buck.

"Global leaders in innovation, like Apple, have both an opportunity and a moral obligation to promote free expression and other basic human rights in countries that routinely deny these rights," he said in a response to the letter. "Apple is clearly a force for good in China, but I also believe it and other tech companies must continue to push back on Chinese suppression of free expression." ®

PS: Microsoft's Skype has been scrubbed from online software stores, including the official iOS store, in China, due to breaking local laws on voice-over-IP. Presumably, Chinese spies are upset at being unable to snoop on encrypted Skype comms.

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