Apple policy sparks outcry as more VPNs removed from Russian App store

AdGuard VPN led the charge against Apple on Tuesday, responding to a recent notice announcing the removal of dozens of VPN services from the Russian App Store – all at the request of the Kremlin’s digital watchdog.

As we reported yesterday, several VPN providers, including Le VPN, Red Shield VPN, and AdGuard VPN, announced their products were being banned from Russia’s App Store at the request of the Kremlin’s Roskomnadzor (RKN).

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for AdGuard VPN provided Cybernews with a copy of the Apple notice sent to VPN providers informing them of the upcoming restrictions.

“I’m reaching out to you to inform you that AdGuard VPN has also been removed from Apple's App Store alongside more than two dozen VPN services in Russia,” said AdGuard VPN spokesperson Ekaterina Kachalova.

“We received an official communication from Apple notifying us of the impending removal yesterday, July 8th,” Kachalova said.

Apple VPN Russia ban letter AdGuard VPN
Official letter sent to AdGuard VPN provider informing of its removal from the Russian App Store. Image by Cybernews.

The letter, signed by App Review, states that the AdGuard application is being removed “per demand from Roskomnadzor… because it includes content that is illegal in Russia” and is therefore non-compliant with “App Review Guidelines.”

The letter’s missive further explains that all apps must comply with legal requirements in any location where you make them available.

“If you're not sure, check with a lawyer. We know this stuff is complicated, but it is your responsibility to understand and make sure your app conforms with all local laws,” the letter states.

The RKN, otherwise known by its official government agency name, The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media, is in charge of monitoring and controlling all media disseminated to the Russian people.

The specific Russian law behind the VPN takedowns – Federal Law No. 149-FZ, "On Information, Information Technologies and Protection" – is the same law cited by the RKN to blacklist a slew of Western social media apps since the war on Ukraine, including X (formally known as Twitter) Facebook, Instagram, Discord, Snapchat, and more.

Could American TikTok users suffer the same restrictions?

Digital rights advocates have warned that Russian authorities, since the start of the war in Ukraine in February 2022, have ramped up efforts to achieve total control of the internet, comparing the crackdowns to China's 'Great Firewall.'

“As it stands now, millions of Russians have lost the ability to download a VPN, specifically iOS users,” Kachalova said, calling out Apple for its “closed ecosystem,” which essentially restricts Apple users in censored nations from utilizing alternative ways to download apps.

“This situation highlights a stark contrast with Android, which allows sideloading, meaning that Android users can download the apps from developer websites and alternative app stores, “ she said.

Kachalova says that Apple has resisted these alternative options, citing privacy and security reasons, but noted that for iOS 17.4, Apple has been forced to allow alternative download methods in the EU, as required under the new Digital Markets Act (DMA).

Popular VPN services in Russia
ADGuard tops the list of most used VPN services in Russia. Image by VPN in Russia: from blocking services to blocking protocols, October 2023 report.

AdGuard VPN, listed as the most popular VPN in Russia, said it plans to raise awareness by launching a campaign in hopes of pushing Apple to start allowing sideloading as an option for iOS users in censored nations.

Kachalova also makes clear the VPN provider's stance on Apple’s compliance with individual governments’ demands, labeling the latest removals as “symptomatic of a larger issue.”

“If this system is unchallenged, similar actions by Apple could affect users of many popular apps in the future. The next in line could be American users of TikTok which is facing a real prospect of removal in the US next year,” Kachalova said.

The Russian Federation stated that using VPNs is inherently unsafe for its citizens due to potential exposure to fake propaganda, disinformation, malware and viruses, according to a 2023 TAdvisor report on VPNs and Privacy.

Last fall, Russian Ministry officials had announced the new legislation allowing the RKN to block all VPN services in application stores starting on March 1st, 2024.

About 150 VPN services were blocked by the RKN this April, including 82 resources found advertising VPNs, TAdvisor reported in May. Fines for violating Russian VPN regulations range from 8,000 RUB, roughly 91 USD, to 4,000,000 RUB, the equivalent of 44,668 USD.