Apple removes VPN apps at request of Russian authorities, say app makers

Apple has removed several VPN apps from its App Store in Russia at the request of the government’s communications watchdog, according to VPN makers. 

Last week, Russian news agency Interfax reported that Apple had removed 25 VPN apps from its App Store in Russia after Roskomnadzor, a government body that regulates the internet — including what Russians can access — demanded the removals. 

The internet in Russia is heavily controlled and censored, so Russian online users often rely on VPNs to circumvent restrictions and access blocked content. 

On Monday, two VPN services — Le VPN and Red Shield VPN — told TechCrunch that they received a letter from Apple notifying them of the company’s decision to remove their apps from the App Store. 

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Image Credits: Red Shield VPN

“We are writing to notify you that your application, per demand from Roskomnadzor will be removed from the Russia App Store because it includes content that is illegal in Russia, which is not in compliance with the App Review Guidelines,” read a letter sent to Red Shield VPN by Apple, according to a screenshot provided to TechCrunch by the company’s CEO and founder Vladislav Zdolnikov. 

Another source, who claimed to know some of the developers of the banned apps, provided the same letter to TechCrunch. 

The letter essentially argues that the VPN apps in question are in violation of Russian law. 

“Apps must comply with all legal requirements in any location where you make them available (if you’re not sure, check with a lawyer),” the letter reads. “We know this stuff is complicated, but it is your responsibility to understand and make sure your app conforms with all local laws, not just the guidelines below.”

The letter did not provide a specific reason for the app removals, but that Roskomnadzor’s takedown request was authorized by a specific article of Russia’s federal law. 

It’s the latest crackdown on VPNs since the government introduced a ban on VPN advertising ahead of the country’s election in March. 

Zdolnikov said in an email that Red Shield VPN, as well as other apps that were removed, like HideMyName and Le VPN, “are developed and maintained by people who have an in-depth understanding of Russia’s internet censorship mechanisms.”

“We know how to circumvent these restrictions and are constantly improving our services. Despite years of efforts to block our services, they remain accessible to users,” Zdolnikov wrote. “It turns out that Apple did this work for the Russian authorities and with better quality.”

Konstantin Votinov, the founder of Le VPN, told TechCrunch that the company received a message from Apple on July 4, notifying them of the removal. In Le VPN’s case, according to Votinov, Roskomnadzor flagged the app’s description on the App Store as “infringing content.” 

“We received a notice from [Roskomnadzor] via Apple after our app had already been removed, giving us no opportunity to address the concerns. This appears to be part of a broader crackdown affecting at least 25 VPN providers in Russia,” Votinov said. 

Apple in 2022 halted hardware exports to Russia and stopped some services to protest its invasion of Ukraine, though its app store remains open. Apple did not respond to requests for comment sent by TechCrunch. The Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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