Earlier this week, popular VPN provider Proton made headlines by linking Apple’s rejection of a security update to its ProtonVPN mobile app with the ongoing political upheaval in Myanmar. In response, Apple today provided MacRumors with a timeline of the events regarding the app update.
blog post dated March 23, Proton founder Andy Yen wrote that Apple rejected “important updates” for its VPN app related to security, on the same day that the UN recommended people in Myanmar use ProtonMail, an encrypted email app also developed by Proton. Yen claimed that sign-ups for ProtonVPN “spiked to 250 times the previous average daily rate” in the days following the military coup, making ProtonVPN an essential tool for people on the ground, and accused Apple of putting profits ahead of human rights by blocking the update.
To safely convey such sensitive information to UN investigators and ensure whistleblowers are not attacked or killed, the UN recommended people use ProtonMail or Signal to report evidence of wrongdoing.
ProtonMail is not the only Proton app being used by activists and protesters in Myanmar. The people of Myanmar have also turned to ProtonVPN to get around these internet blocks, seek accurate news to stay safe, and report on the killings.
In the days immediately after the coup, the sign-ups for ProtonVPN in Myanmar spiked to 250 times the previous average daily rate.
Specifically, Apple rejected the update due to an excerpt from the app’s description which encouraged users to “bypass geo-restrictions or content limitations.” ProtonVPN’s App Store description previously read:
Whether it is challenging governments, educating the public, or training journalists, we have a long history of helping bring online freedom to more people around the world.
Proton told MacRumors earlier this week that the rejection “came completely of the blue” on March 17, given that the app had always had the same description, without any issue or rejection from Apple.
Now, Apple has provided MacRumors with a more concise and specific timeline of events. In a statement, Apple says that all apps made by Proton are available and have remained available for download in Myanmar, seemingly rejecting the narrative put forth by Proton that it had deliberately withheld the update due to the situation on the ground.
Apple says it approved ProtonVPN’s latest App Store update on March 19 and says, correctly, that Proton published the update to users two days later, on March 21. ProtonVPN, another two days later, published a blog post correlating the rejection to Apple limiting free speech and human rights in Myanmar.
- March 18 – Apple holds up app update, requests a change to the wording in ProtonVPN app’s description
- March 19 – Update approved by Apple following requested change in wording
- March 21 – Proton releases update to users on the App Store
- March 23 – Proton publishes blog post, correlating update rejection to political situation in Myanmar
Apple’s full statement to MacRumors:
All apps made by Proton, including ProtonVPN, have remained available for download in Myanmar. We approved the most recent version of ProtonVPN on March 19. Following this approval, Proton chose to time the release of their update, making it available on March 21, while subsequently publishing their blog post on March 23.
Proton founder Andy Yen told The Verge that due to the emergency in Myanmar, Proton decided to remove the excerpt from the app’s description that Apple had objected to, which “finally” allowed the update to be released to users.
Due to the emergency in Myanmar, we removed the language about challenging governments which Apple found objectionable, and the app was finally approved.
Despite the clarification from Apple, what remains Proton’s point of contention is the sudden strict enforcement of App Store guidelines. App Store rule 5.4 states that VPN apps must “not violate local laws,” and Apple viewed ProtonVPN’s description as a violation of the rule, despite Proton’s claim that Apple had no issues with it in the past.
It’s still unclear what motivated Apple to enforce this particular legal rule more strictly on this occasion, but the timing is certainly unfortunate for the company from a PR perspective, given Myanmar’s current political situation. Meanwhile, Apple continues to push back against the perception that it is abusing its position as platform arbiter, as it faces multiple antitrust legal cases brought against it by developers unhappy with its App Store policies.
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