In business, the customer is always right. However, when the business is a global tech supplier, companies must determine whether to define the customer as the individual consumer or the country in which the consumer resides.
This month Apple agreed to internet regulations set by the Chinese government. Apple pulled virtual private networks (VPNs) out of its App Store last month in accordance with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s call for VPN regulation, according to a Fortune report. To operate in China, VPN providers must first obtain government-approved licensing.
VPNs, for the most part, act as safeguards for consumers. Travelers using public Wi-Fi can be susceptible to hackers infiltrating their personal data. The encryption of VPNs allow consumers to avoid geo-tracking, censorship and searching restrictions. For an enterprise, VPNs offer assurance of securing data when accessing off-premise data centers.
VPNs can restore faith in skeptical internet users. But, imposing restrictions on VPN use give the impression that VPNs are sinister in nature when in reality their usage mostly is to thwart sinister actions from taking place.
However, most tech providers, like Apple, have an international presence and willing compliance has become a part of the business model with oversea countries.
Apple’s place in policy
While Apple has not protested the Chinese regulations, in the United States however, the company has not remained silent in terms of laws and regulations that it feels could harm customers.
In July, Apple was among a unified tech protest in support of net neutrality, an Obama-era law that regulated Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and their potential for censorship. Apple also voiced concern over immigration restrictions, arguing that it is a company dependent upon immigration as most of its workforce is from foreign countries. Apple has dispelled any federal threats that may impede on immigrant rights in the U.S.
And famously, Apple refused to unlock the iPhone used by the San Bernardino terrorist to assist the FBI investigation. At the time, Apple said that unlocking this phone could lead to more "far-reaching implications in the ongoing debate over encryption and privacy."
However, Apple calls the U.S. its home.
From a domestic perspective, it appears that Apple — and now Amazon, according to The New York Times — is choosing to withdraw any political language in exchange for continued international business.
Companies "often put profits before human rights. By pulling VPN apps out of China, Apple has shown that freedom of speech is not its priority," said Jodi Myers, spokeswoman for NordVPN. However, eventually this business model may fail, as "today’s Western consumers care more about the ethics of the products and services they choose to buy."
Critics now view Apple as an unintentional accomplice for the Chinese government to either restrict or monitor internet content access. Like the repeal of net neutrality, Harold Li, vice president of ExpressVPN, argues that the removal of VPNs may infringe on consumer rights online. As ExpressVPN is one of the apps removed from the store, Li told CIO Dive that "we should expect and demand that companies uphold, not undermine, human rights."
Many see free and unrestricted internet access as a human right. Li reiterated the sentiments of the the United Nations, who has worked to preserve online freedom of expression, or "digital rights," as "a matter of moral and ethical obligation for companies and their executives."
Tech companies' role in foreign regulations
Albeit divisive, at the end of the day, it is not the job of major tech companies to have an ethical compass in foreign countries and their laws. They are there to sell gadgets and services.
Apple had already allowed the Chinese government to restrict the VPNs present in iOS, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, so it may seem unsurprising that Apple has continued its compliance with regulations although disparate from American values.
Apple’s dependency on its international market is reliant on its practices with foreign governments. China is Apple’s second largest consumer market, representing 25% of its sales, according to Business Insider as of May 2017.
VPNs removed from China App Store. Dismayed Apple sided w/ censorship, but we're committed to keeping you connected: https://t.co/wvVk6IIsD3— ExpressVPN (@expressvpn) July 29, 2017
Apple is apparently willing to accept the moral backlash as a necessary cost of not losing a entire market, and a powerful one, no less.
"We believe in engaging with governments even when we disagree," said Apple CEO Tim Cook. "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."
For Apple, the top tech provider in the world, following certain rules will ultimately benefit its customers so it can still provide them with technology. However, because of its standing, this type of compliance makes it seem that much more concerning as others look to follow its lead.
In good company
Apple is not alone when it comes to abiding by Chinese law. Appeasing the Chinese rule of law ensures products and services don't get banned completely. Social platforms including Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are banned entirely, according to CNN. Google's search engine and its apps have been banned since 2010. Before then, searches were restricted.
Despite last year's criticism of the Chinese government's request for supplying source code brought on by Microsoft, Intel and IBM, companies are still aware of their standing with international regulations. Apple knows that by restricting a fraction of its market within the app store, as instructed, it can still operate on foreign soil, despite criticism from its native country.
China is among a few countries enforcing VPN regulations. Russia still allows legal VPN usage but, as of April, the Russian government has made a push to eliminate their use, according to International Business Times. As of 2013, Iran only allows VPNs that have been registered with the government, as reported by Engadget. Near the end of 2016 Turkey imposed a block of VPN use including, again, ExpressVPN, according to The Daily Dot.
Perhaps the line between business and politics is intentionally blurred for international companies. However, for VPN providers continuing their goal of providing security and encryption to "anyone who cares about protecting their data," according to Li, is a top priority.
Depending on the provider and outlet, users can still access VPNs. NordVPN remains available in China but provides customers a "special technical solution to bypass the Great Firewall," according to Myers. The company said it is "constantly looking for technical workarounds in countries with strict censorship, so that we can allow people to enjoy the Internet freedom."