News broke the past couple days that Apple is pulling all virtual private network apps from its App Store in China.
VPNs are used around the world primarily to secure communication on networks. If a user wants to use a laptop on a cafe’s Wi-Fi network, then a VPN will assist the laptop user from avoiding snoops, hackers, and eavesdroppers. If a traveler visits a hotel, then a VPN can secure the traveler’s devices on the hotel network.
But in China, VPNs are often used to circumvent controls over the flow of Internet traffic. Western websites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, NYTimes.com and many others are filtered (or “blocked” as other media incorrectly often report) in China. So a VPN creates a tunnel that allows a user in China to access filtered websites or online services.
So Apple has just removed all VPN apps from its China store. What does this really mean? Not much, actually. Taking away VPN apps from the iOS store is a mild inconvenience for VPN users, but it is not the end of the world.
First, the way iOS handles L2TP and IKEv2 VPN connections (and the older PPTP on older versions of iOS) is built into iOS. It is the iPhone itself that controls the encrypted connections between the phone and a server offshore. A user who relies on a VPN app is only using the app to make some of the fiddling with profile configurations and connections a bit easier. A typical VPN app merely places a configuration file onto an iPhone or iPad. Without the VPN app, a user would need to spend a couple more minutes manually entering a username, password, and certificate details into an iPhone. It’s not that difficult to do. So Apple’s app removals creates an inconvenience for users.
VPN apps often also have built-in payment methods. Without the app, users can use the old-fashioned way that everyone used 2 years ago — go to a website and pay with Bitcoin, PayPal, or a credit card. So, again, it’s not that difficult without a VPN app to get around Apple’s VPN armageddon in China.
Finally, Android phones have many more VPN options. Not only are there a lot of cracked phones being used that can very easily use VPN services, but more SSL VPN services exist for Android users. So this may be the tipping point for Apple in China — users may flee Apple for Android phones.
So, this is not the end of the world for VPNs in China. If anything, it is just s step back a couple years to a time when VPN users always had to manually update their phones with VPN connection information.