Image: An Apple Store in Shibuya, Japan. Flickr user Dick Thomas Johnson // CC 2.0 License

Apple has removed several virtual private network (VPN) applications from its App Store in Russia on July 4 in order to be in compliance with a request from Roskomnadzor, Russia’s state communications watchdog. This action affected 25 VPN service providers, including prominent ones such as ProtonVPN, Red Shield VPN, NordVPN, and Le VPN, according to media reports.

Several VPN providers have criticized Apple’s compliance with Roskomnadzor’s request. Red Shield VPN issued a statement condemning Apple’s actions as reckless and harmful to civil society, accusing the company of supporting an authoritarian regime to maintain revenue from the Russian market. Similarly, Le VPN expressed concern over the legal basis cited for their app’s removal, which was in accordance with Article 15.1 of the Federal Law No. 149-FZ “On Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection.” Le VPN noted that their app was removed even before they received an official notice from Roskomnadzor.

VPNs are essential for internet users in Russia, enabling them to bypass excessive government censorship and access blocked content. Since the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war in February 2022, the Russian government has increased its control over internet access and content. This has included blocking Western social networks, news media, and local opposition media outlets. VPNs have thus become crucial for many Russians seeking unfiltered access to information.

Since 2019, when NordVPN shut down its Russian servers, VPN services have been under constant scrutiny. The increased control over VPNs aligns with Russia’s broader strategy to isolate its internet from the global web, often referred to as the “sovereign internet” initiative. The latest move by Apple could lead to further repercussions, both for the company and for internet users in Russia. For Russian users, the removal of these VPN apps represents a significant loss of a vital tool for accessing uncensored information.

The removal of these VPN apps represents a significant step in Roskomnadzor’s ongoing efforts to control internet access within the country, and seems to be part of a broader series of censorship measures implemented by the Kremlin since the beginning of the war with Ukraine. In addition to blocking media outlets and social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and X, the Russian government has targeted VPN services as a means to restrict access to unfiltered information.

In response to the crackdown, VPN providers are exploring alternative methods to maintain service availability. Le VPN has launched a new service called Le VPN Give, which allows users to connect to secret servers using third-party open-source software and obfuscated VPN connections. Red Shield VPN has advised users to change their Apple ID’s region or country settings to regain access to their services.