By Tim Hume and Feng Ke, CNN
Hong Kong (CNN) — Apple has been accused of kowtowing to the Chinese government by pulling from its China App Store a product enabling users to circumvent firewalls and access restricted sites.
OpenDoor, a free app that provides users a randomized IP address to keep their browsing habits anonymous and shielded from censors, was removed after the tech giant deemed it contained “illegal content,” the app’s lead developer told CNN.
It remains available in App Stores outside China.
The developer — who wished to remain anonymous, saying that “as the developers of an app that protects users’ privacy and anonymity online, it only makes sense to do the same ourselves” — said Apple provided no notification that the app had been pulled, with the developers only learning from consumers.
When Apple responded to OpenDoor, they were told only that the app contained content that was illegal in China. Apple requires developers to comply with legal requirements in all locations in which the product is made available. The company did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
OpenDoor, a self-described “small team of programmers spread across the world collaborating over the Internet,” considers it has reasonable grounds to challenge Apple’s move, as its product is a browser app and any content accessed through it is at the discretion of the user.
But the developer said there were no plans to try to force the tech giant into a rethink.
“Unfortunately, we’re not aware of any app developer ever (successful) in challenging Apple’s decision. In fact, we won’t be surprised if Apple decides to pull our app from all app stores and/or terminates our account in retaliation (to publicity over the issue).”
The developer said that prior to its removal from Apple’s China App Store on July 11, the app was being downloaded about 2,000 times a day in China, accounting for about a third of the app’s total downloads.
The Chinese government strictly polices Internet access, censoring web users and blocking access to sites deemed sensitive.
Chinese social media users were critical of Apple’s move, saying the decision diminished the company’s moral standing, and comparing it unfavorably to Google as a champion of Internet freedom.
“The fruit is contaminated,” wrote a user on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblog under the handle @XieGov. “Where’s your integrity!” asked @Shenzhenlangya.
“The only one who doesn’t surrender to evil is my great Google!” wrote @Meihoujiushilaowang.
A smaller group were more understanding of the company’s position, however, acknowledging that conforming to China’s censorship policy was the price to pay to do business in the country.
“Apple is determined to do well in China,” wrote Sina Weibo user @Mantianyufeihong. “How can Apple step in to the Chinese market without strict censorship? How can it do business without showing their sincerity (to the government)?”
Other apps previously removed from Apple’s App Store in China for falling foul of censorship laws include one providing access to forbidden books, and a news app for a U.S.-based broadcaster founded by the banned spiritual group Falun Gong.