Apple Holds Up ProtonVPN App Update for Two Days Over the Phrase ‘Challenging Governments’

This is going to be an unpopular opinion, but I found this blog post by Proton founder Andy Yen to be self-aggrandizing and deliberately misleading. Start with the headline: “When Myanmar Needs ProtonVPN the Most, Apple Stands in the Way of Human Rights”.

The post insinuates that Apple’s rejection of an update to the iOS version of ProtonVPN had something to do with Myanmar (which is in the midst of military coup and violent crackdown against pro-democracy protestors). As far as I can tell, though, it had nothing to do with Myanmar. ProtonVPN was never pulled from the App Store globally, nor removed from the App Store in Myanmar. All that happened is that an update was held up because of the following sentence in the app’s description:

Whether it is challenging governments, educating the public, or training journalists, we have a long history of helping bring freedom to more people around the world.

Apple’s rejection stated:

To resolve this issue, please ensure the app is not presented in such a way that encourages users to bypass geo-restrictions or content limitations.

Is “challenging governments” really a violation of section 5.4 of the App Store Guidelines (covering VPN apps)? I’d say no, that phrase stretches the limits but doesn’t cross them. This looks like an overzealous App Store reviewer who decided “challenging governments” is over the line, branding-wise, for Apple. VPNs enable all sorts of things — like watching streaming video services from another geographic content region — that Apple won’t allow developers to advertise in their description, or hint at except obliquely.

Unless I’m missing something, this had nothing whatsoever to do with Myanmar other than the fact that the rejection came the same day that the U.N. recommended ProtonMail and Signal for citizens in Myanmar to securely contact U.N. investigators. The U.N. didn’t even mention ProtonVPN. (Which, by all accounts, is a good and trustworthy VPN.)

The updated version of the app is in the App Store now — Proton (apparently) changed the description to remove the phrase, and Apple approved the update. Nothing to do with Myanmar — this spat is entirely about the phrase “challenging governments”. Again, I think it’s a bit silly for Apple to have rejected the update to ProtonVPN over that phrase. And, According to Apple’s own description of App Store policy changes last year:

Second, for apps that are already on the App Store, bug fixes will no longer be delayed over guideline violations except for those related to legal issues. Developers will instead be able to address the issue in their next submission.

Seems to me that the ProtonVPN update should have been approved, and the dispute over the app description settled afterward. Is the phrase “challenging governments” a “legal issue”? It certainly isn’t a legal issue in most countries. So Proton has legitimate gripes here. But there’s no evidence that any of it had anything to do with Myanmar, yet Yen’s post insinuated the whole thing was about Myanmar. (Are we to believe that the Myanmar junta is OK with VPN apps, functionally, but simply objects to describing them on app stores as tools for “challenging governments”?) Yen writes:

What is also troubling is that Apple requested the removal of this language in ALL countries where our app is available. By doing so, Apple is helping spread authoritarian laws globally, even in countries where freedom of speech is protected.

Apple’s apparent distaste for the phrase “challenging governments” in the context of VPN apps is no more helping to spread authoritarianism globally than their distaste for promoting pornography (say, in the app description of a web browser with private browsing) is helping spread puritanism.

Proton’s Myanmar slant frankly reeks of a histrionic publicity stunt from a company with a deeply antagonistic stance against the entire concept of the App Store.