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Tim Cook says Apple followed Chinese law in removing VPN apps from App Store

Responding to criticism surrounding Apple's recent removal of VPN apps from the Chinese iOS App Store, CEO Tim Cook on Tuesday said the company was simply following new government regulations, as it would for any country in which it operates.

Speaking to investment analysts in an earnings conference call, Cook said the Chinese government began clamping down on virtual private network apps and related services in 2015. The laws essentially require VPN operators to obtain a license, Cook said.

Renewed efforts to enforce existing policy prompted scrutiny and the ultimate removal of certain apps in the App Store. Though Cook did not elaborate on the matter, it can be assumed a bulk of the culled apps were marketed by developers who lacked proper licensing.

Apple took an unknown number of VPN apps down from the App Store over the weekend.

"We would obviously rather not remove the apps, but like we do in other countries we follow the law wherever we do business," Cook said. "And we strongly believe that participating in markets and bringing benefits to customers is in the best interest of the folks there and in other countries as well. So we believe in engaging with governments even when we disagree."

He added that hundreds of VPN apps are still available to Chinese users, including those developed and marketed by app makers residing outside of China.

Apple has in the past been an outspoken proponent of free speech and the company is notoriously protective over threats to the App Store, an integral part of the iOS experience.

"In this particular case, commenting on this one, we're hopeful that over time the restrictions we're seeing are loosened, because innovation really requires freedom to collaborate and communicate, and I know that that is a major focus there," he said.

Cook maintains that Apple conducts itself according to local laws, getting ahead of speculation that the company is kowtowing to the Asian country. As for arguments that Apple did the opposite in fighting U.S. law enforcement agency requests to access an iPhone linked to last year's San Bernardino terror attack, Cook said the situation was "very different."

"The law in the U.S. supported us, it was very clear. In the case of China, the law is also very clear there," Cook said. "Like we would if the U.S. changed the law here, we have to abide by them in both cases. That doesn't mean we don't state our point of view in the appropriate way, we always do that."