Apple Inc has announced that it is removing virtual private network (VPN) services from its app store in China, drawing criticism from VPN service providers, who accuse the US tech giant of bowing to pressure from Beijing.
VPNs allow users to bypass China's so-called "Great Firewall" aimed at restricting access to overseas sites.
In January, Beijing passed laws seeking to ban all VPNs that are not approved by state regulators. Approved VPNs must use state network infrastructure.
In a statement on Sunday, an Apple spokeswoman confirmed it will remove apps that do not comply with the law from its China App Store, including services based outside the country.
Beijing has shut down dozens of China-based providers and it has been targeting overseas services as it bids to tighten its control over the internet, especially in advance of the Communist Party congress in August.
While personal VPN providers have been the subject of state-led attacks in the past, this marks the first time Apple has complied with requests to scrub overseas providers from its store, a move that VPN providers say is unnecessarily supportive of China's heightened censorship.
"Apple has done much good for privacy and security in recent years, but actively assisting censorship crosses the red line of human rights," Edward Snowden, the American whistle-blower now residing in Russia, said in a tweet.
Apple sends notices to providers
VPN provider ExpressVPN said on Saturday that it had received a notice from Apple that its software would be removed from the China App Store "because it includes content that is illegal in China".
"We're disappointed in this development, as it represents the most drastic measure the Chinese government has taken to block the use of VPNs to date, and we are troubled to see Apple aiding China's censorship efforts," ExpressVPN said in a statement.
Other major providers, including VyprVPN and StarVPN, confirmed they also received the notice on Saturday from Apple.
"We view access to internet in China as a human rights issue and I would expect Apple to value human rights over profit," Sunday Yokubaitis, president of Golden Frog, which oversees VyprVPN told the Reuters news agency on Sunday.
Yokubaitis said Golden Frog will file an appeal to Apple over the ban.
China users with billing addresses in other countries will still be able to access VPN apps from other branches of the App Store.
A number of VPN apps were still accessible on the China App store on Saturday, according to Reuters.