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

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Apple has removed a number of VPN apps from its App Store in Russia at the request of the government’s communications regulator, 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, the government body that regulates the internet — including what Russians can access — demanded that the apps be taken down.

There is a lot of control and censorship over the internet in Russia, so Russian online users often rely on VPNs to bypass restrictions and access blocked content.

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

“We are writing to inform you that your application will be removed from the Russian App Store as demanded by Roskomnadzor because it contains content that is illegal in Russia, which is not in compliance with the App Review Guidelines,” 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, also provided the same letter to TechCrunch.

The letter primarily argues that the VPN apps in question are violating 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’s your responsibility to understand and make sure your app is compliant with all local laws, not just the guidelines below.”

The letter did not give any specific reasons for the removal of the app, but said that Roskomnadzor’s request to remove the app was authorised by a specific article of Russia’s federal law.

This is the latest crackdown on VPNs after the government banned VPN advertising ahead of the country’s elections in March.

Zdolnikov said in an email that Red Shield VPN, as well as other apps that have been removed, such as HideMyName and Le VPN, “were developed and managed by people who have a deep understanding of Russia’s internet censorship mechanisms.”

“We know how to circumvent these restrictions and we are constantly improving our services. Despite years of attempts 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.”

Le VPN founder Konstantin Votinov told TechCrunch that the company received a message from Apple on July 4 informing them of the removal. According to Votinov, in Le VPN’s case, Roskomnadzor marked 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 chance to address the concerns. It appears to be part of a broader crackdown affecting at least 25 VPN providers in Russia,” Votinov said.

In 2022 Apple halted hardware exports to Russia and shut down some services to protest its invasion of Ukraine, though its App Store remained open. Apple did not respond to requests for comment sent by TechCrunch. The Russian embassy in Washington DC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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