Censorship in Russia, Turkey, Iran–and of course China, has been getting worse and worse. ISPs in these countries are government controlled which means they can easily block websites for the users that use internet in the countries. Popular websites like Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, and other social networking services as well as messaging apps are frequently censored and blocked completely. In a disappointing development, various American companies are giving in to some of the censorship demands of these countries.
Understanding the reasoning of these countries for blocking these services is inherently complicated. In most cases these restrictions are constructed by false pretenses of protecting national security. You only need to look at Iran for how silly yet horrifyingly extreme censorship has become.
Iran has blocked the Clash of Clans app “because psychologists in the country believe the game promotes violence and what they are describing as ‘tribal conflict’.” Who knew a mobile game could be so dangerous? Now, as it turns out mobile apps themselves are becoming the new targets of censorship-hungry governments like Russia and China.
In the last few weeks, the Chinese government has “forced” Apple to remove the New York Times apps from the Chinese version of the App Store. Additionally, Russia has convinced Apple and Google to remove the app for Linkedin from Russian app stores. To seal the deal, China has put in steps to increase their ability to remove apps requiring app stores that operate in their country to register with the government.
While it’s not immediately apparent why US companies would give into censorship requests from foreign governments–since the website are already banned, it’s important to understand that banning apps is a very big step for effective world wide censorship. Blocking websites is made possible since governments are willing to spend billions of dollars on country-wide firewalls that block content, but pulling an app from the app store is cheaper and more effective. But as with blocked websites, it’s not foolproof.
The app store is great since you can access all your purchases on the cloud and it’s more convenient than installing software from a CD, but unlike a CD, when it gets removed sometimes it’s not possible to get it back. However in this case, it’s important to make a distinction. The apps are getting removed from app stores in certain countries, not every app store.
While it’s very disturbing to see apps getting removed in the name of censorship, there are still ways that users can use VPNs to circumvent censorship in a similar fashion to how people use VPNs to get around website blocks.
It’s simple a matter of using a VPN, getting a new Apple or Google Play ID, and then connecting/registering to a new region where those said apps are available. It can be a bit of a pain, but it’s a good workaround and a lot of people do this already to get early access to games or to get around app store censorship.