An internet cafe in Beijing. China has long wielded the most sophisticated and comprehensive internet controls in the world. Credit Roman Pilipey/European Pressphoto Agency
SHANGHAI — One of the last foreign-run tools for online communication in China appears to be in trouble with the authorities here.
For almost a month, Skype, the internet phone call and messaging service, has been unavailable on a number of sites where apps are downloaded in China, including Apple’s app store in the country.
“We have been notified by the Ministry of Public Security that a number of voice over internet protocol apps do not comply with local law. Therefore these apps have been removed from the app store in China,” an Apple spokeswoman said Tuesday in an emailed statement responding to questions about Skype’s disappearance from the app store. “These apps remain available in all other markets where they do business.”
The removal led to a volley of complaints from Chinese users on internet message boards who were no longer able to pay for Skype’s services through Apple. The users said that the disruption began in late October.
Skype, which is owned by Microsoft, still functions in China, and its fate in the country is not yet clear. But its removal from the app stores is the most recent example of a decades-long push by China’s government to control and monitor the flow of information online.
While China has long wielded the most sophisticated and comprehensive internet controls in the world, under President Xi Jinping it has upped the ante, squelching most major foreign social networks and messaging apps one at a time.
Earlier this autumn, the Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp was hit by blockages in China, becoming the latest in a long line of products to be rendered unusable by Chinese government filters. Others include Gmail, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Telegram and Line.
Beijing appears to have disabled these apps because they generally feature encryption options that make messages harder for the government to monitor. Such products also often run afoul of government rules that require the use of real-name identification for each and every account.
A Microsoft spokesman said that Skype had been “temporarily removed” from Apple’s store and that the company was “working to reinstate the app as soon as possible.” But the spokesman did not address Skype’s absence from a variety of major third-party Android app stores. Because Google’s services are largely blocked in China, Android users revert to alternate stores for downloads, and Skype’s main app was not available on popular ones run by Chinese tech giants like Huawei and Xiaomi.
The move is a reminder of how beholden Apple has become to the Chinese government at a moment when the leadership is pushing to tighten its control over the internet. To stay in China’s good graces, Apple has taken down apps from its Chinese app store in the past. Last year, it said it had complied with a request from the Chinese authorities to remove apps created by The New York Times from its China app store.
In recent months, a perfect storm of sensitive political meetings and a new cybersecurity law has led to a sharp crackdown on internet freedoms in China. Foreign TV shows were taken down, software that helps evade China’s internet filters was targeted with heavy disruptions, and in some cases, companies restricted the amount of time that children could spend playing video games.
But a key Chinese Communist Party meeting had already ended when Skype disappeared from the app stores — an indication that the cybersecurity law was the reason, and that the law, which began to take effect in June, is likely to have a deep and long-lasting impact on how the internet works in China. While the rules do not specifically ban foreign messaging apps, they do include general language that could be used to justify crackdowns.
“A broad reading of provisions in the law could be taken to mean that there is no longer support for allowing unfettered access to foreign communications tools such as Skype, WhatsApp, Signal and others that are outside the direct control of Chinese authorities,” said Paul Triolo, the head of global technology at Eurasia Group, a consultancy.
“Hence these also come under pressure, and are increasingly being throttled or blocked,” he said.
Apple faced heavy criticism this year after it said it had decided to take down software from its app store in China that helps circumvent the government’s internet filters, colloquially called the Great Firewall.
In that case, as in this one, it said that the apps violated Chinese rules and that it had taken them down to comply. Apple said this year that it planned to open a data center in China, also in response to China’s new internet laws, which require that such centers be within the country’s borders.