The Chinese government’s crackdown on the internet continues with the news that Apple has removed all major VPN apps, which help internet users overcome the country’s censorship system, from the App Store in China.

The move was first noted by , a provider based outside of China, which said in “all major VPN apps” including its own had been purged from Apple’s China-based store. The company shared a note from Apple (below) explaining that its app was removed because “it includes content that is illegal in China.”

The app continues to be available for users across the world outside of China, the company said. However, is unknown to many users, so it is unlikely to fill the void of the missing Chinese app.

Another provide, Star VPN, that its app had also been removed.

Apple had not replied for comment at the time of writing.

ExpressVPN shared a note from Apple notifying it of the removal of its app in China

The App Store purge is hugely impactful because VPNs represent the only way that a China-based individual can bypass state censorship controls to access the internet without restrictions. The Chinese government effectively illegalized VPNs when new rules issued in January in order to operate. That appears to be why Apple was forced to remove ExpressVPN and others like it.

Apple may believe it is best for its business to co-operate with requests from Beijing, but this App Store purge just created one of the biggest setbacks for the free internet in China’s history.

“We’re disappointed in this development, as it represents the most drastic measure the Chinese government has taken to block the use of VPNs to date, and we are troubled to see Apple aiding China’s censorship efforts. ExpressVPN strongly condemns these measures, which threaten free speech and civil liberties,” ExpressVPN wrote on its blog.

Today’s news is the latest in a series of developments against the free internet from China.

 leaving their users, which included professionals who require access to the global internet for work, without an alternative. that the country’s mobile operators had been told to ban VPN apps by early 2018, but other steps have clearly been taken.  earlier this month that the Great Firewall, the term for China’s internet censorship apparatus, had been “upgraded” with new capabilities. VPN services subsequently found that they had been hit by the most sophisticated attacks from China to date. .

Those new capability apparently also made it possible for the government to interfere with messaging apps. While now blocked entirely, through the chat app and , China’s most popular messaging service. The censorship seemed to be linked to , a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who lost a battle to liver cancer earlier this month having been denied permission to leave custody to seek medical treatment overseas.

Going direct to Apple is becoming an effective way to enforce censorship since the U.S. firm controls what apps are available in China. The tactic proved successful for China earlier this year when  The Times and Wall Street Journal are among a number of international news sites blocked in China, .

It’s unclear whether similar action has been taken with Android stores in China. The Google Play Store is not present in China, where a handful of third-party app stores are the most influential distributors of Android apps.

offers ‘censorship-proof’ alternatives like its Android VPN  and other services that include , but Apple’s iOS doesn’t permit similar options.

Apple just  and, beyond , the long-time Apple executive is tasked with the difficult job of managing a relationship with Beijing. The U.S. firm recently  to develop its first China-based data center, a move that is thought to be related to .

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