The “Great Firewall” of China has properly killed many VPN connections recently. It has blocked searches for VPN apps on iTunes App Store in China too. But Apple, not to be out-gunned by the communist, has just switched connections to the App Store to the HTTPS protocol, a secure connection that is not easy to selectively filter. There is no doubt that Apple decision is brave enough, but it’s also extremely risky and may end up with more restrictions from the authorities. Apple’s move is actually building an unrestricted commercial platform which is free from the GFW’s control. It’s not clear how long the secure connection will be available. At the moment, Chinese Apple users can download or buy VPN apps freely in App store. In China, nothing can stay out of Chinese government’s eyes, especially the flow of information. It is highly likely that the government have noticed this loophole and they would step-up regulation on the Android and iTunes App Stores …
Apple’s move may result the Chinese government to speed up the strengthening process for their censorship on mobile apps. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has just announced that they would establish a evaluation system for smartphone apps and its platforms with built-in software assessment and checks. The practice is similar as the licensing policy that has already applied on setting up websites in China. For example, if you want to run a video-sharing website, you need an audio-visual license. If you want to create an online game platform, you need to pass the evaluation from the Press and Publication Administration and the Ministry of Culture. That means mobile app developers and hosting platforms in China need to be recorded, verified and supervised by the authorities in future. Therefore, they’re essentially creating a process to officially license apps – ostensibly to filter out malicious content, adult oriented and politically sensitive, but also to remove VPNs, making the firewall stronger than ever.
The new policy is going to affect millions of local app developers in China. Once the app platforms get regulated, developers will be examined by the authority and the threshold of app development will be raised. App development is actually a form of creative business which cannot be given regulatory constraints by Chinese government. Developers take time and effort to respond to these evaluations, apps will take longer time to get published. This gives no benefit to smartphone users nor developers. Foreign developers would also presumably need to co-operate with localization houses to get their apps through the review system.
Apple may be currently putting up a fight on this, but China now is its second-largest market, the company will certainly looking forward to have a good relationship with the Chinese government in long run. If Steve Jobs still alive, Apple may negotiate with Chinese government about the regulation, but now they may just choose to follow it. Business means business, it is difficult for Apple to look for an equilibrium point on this, the operating environment for iTunes App Store in China might come to a change, Chinese mobile user and app developers won’t be having a good times on this.
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