Published:November 22, 2017 1:20 pm
Microsoft Corpâs Skype has vanished from Apple Inc and Android smartphone app stores in China, becoming the latest victim in Beijingâs sweeping internet clampdown. The internet phone and video service was no longer available on Appleâs iOS or on popular local Android stores such as Xiaomi Corpâs, though it still functioned as of Wednesday. The Ministry of Public Security notified Apple that a number of voice-over-internet-protocol apps didnât comply with local law and the US company subsequently removed them, a spokeswoman for the iPhone maker said. Those apps, which enable voice calls among other things, remain in place elsewhere.
Itâs unclear why Skype, which has operated for years in China despite making little headway against more popular services like WeChat, was targeted. Under Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has tightened controls over online content and taken aim at messaging services in particular, requiring users to register their real names and threatening action against people who disseminate content deemed to threaten social stability. WhatsApp is periodically blocked in China, while the social network of its owner Facebook Inc isnât accessible. Twitter and Google are similarly barred.
Microsoft said in a statement that Skypeâs removal was temporary and it was working to get it reinstated as soon as possible, without elaborating. The Cyberspace Administration of China and Ministry for Industry and Information Technology didnât respond to a faxed request for comment on the move, which the New York Times first reported. âAny instant messaging apps operating in China must follow the cybersecurity law, thereâs no question about it,â said Zuo Xiaodong, vice-president of the China Information Security Research Institute, a government think-tank. âIt goes without saying whose regulations need to be followed if a companyâs own rules contradict Chinaâs lawâas long as it wants to continue to operate in the Chinese mainland.â
While Skypeâs removal triggered a flurry of online complaints, itâs unlikely to inconvenience the vast majority of Chinese online users whoâve taken up more popular chat and calling services such as Tencent Holdings Ltdâs WeChat. As of Wednesday, rival messaging services from Signal to Telegram remained available for download. China is in the throes of the biggest crackdown on freedom of expression and media in the internet era. Foreign companies complain of restrictions that hamstring operations and favor homegrown players. Police are shutting businesses and arresting civilians on message groups as Beijing plugs more holes in its â Great Firewallâ blockade of blacklisted sites.
Xi has galvanized a nationwide machine in which corporations, cyber cops and automated systems police content to preserve the partyâs seven-decade rule. As global giants from Alphabet Incâs Google to Facebook Inc explore entry, they have to weigh the benefits of tapping the worldâs biggest internet market against the fallout from appearing to back a repressive regime. Apple itself has come under fire, as critics accuse the worldâs largest company of aiding and abetting censorship.
One of the key measures Beijingâs taken is a crackdown on virtual private networks, services that skirt censorship restrictions by routing web traffic abroad. Apple has removed 674 of such apps from its Chinese app store at the request of the local government, the iPhone maker revealed in a letter sent Tuesday to Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Leahy responded by calling for Apple to push back against Chinese âsuppression of free expression.â âWe are convinced that continued engagement is the surest way to effect change,â Cynthia Hogan, Appleâs head of lobbying in the US, wrote in the letter. âWe express our opinions about the impacts of laws and regulations forthrightly to policymakers.â
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