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When Myanmar needs ProtonVPN the most, Apple stands in the way of human rights

Posted on March 23rd, 2021 by in Articles & News.

An illustration of Apple blocking ProtonVPN security updates.

 

Proton has long been a defender of freedom and democracy around the world. In fact, protecting these fundamental human rights was one of the main reasons we founded ProtonMail back in 2014. From Hong Kong to Belarus, activists, protesters, journalists, and citizens of the world have turned to our services to securely and privately communicate, express themselves, and overcome internet blocks. 

We feel every corporation has a responsibility to protect basic human rights wherever they are under threat. Unfortunately, by blocking ProtonVPN security updates, Apple has demonstrated that it does not share this philosophy.

Recently, the people of Myanmar have been fighting to preserve their human rights after the military deposed the democratically-elected government and seized power on Feb. 1. In the weeks since, military forces have killed over 250 peaceful protesters and illegally detained over 2,500.

On March 17, the United Nations appealed for people to collect and preserve documentary evidence of crimes against humanity. 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. For the past month, the Myanmar military has forced the national telecom companies to regularly shut down the internet and block access to social media to prevent damaging evidence from getting out. 

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.

Apple blocks ProtonVPN updates

On the same day the UN recommended Proton apps, Apple suddenly rejected important updates to our ProtonVPN iOS app. These updates include security enhancements designed to further improve safeguards against account takeover attempts which could compromise privacy. 

A screenshot of the email Apple sent to us to explain that it was blocking our update to ProtonVPN.

Apple says it blocked our security updates because our app description in the App Store, which we have used without issue for months, mentions ProtonVPN is a tool to “challenge governments… and bring online freedom to people around the world”. Given the current context, Apple’s actions could not be more insensitive.

Today, apps like ProtonVPN are a lifeline to the rest of the world for the people of Myanmar who are being massacred. By preventing us from informing users that ProtonVPN can be used to bypass internet restrictions, Apple is making it harder for people to find this lifeline. Apple’s decision will make it even more difficult for the citizens of Myanmar to send evidence of crimes against humanity to the United Nations. 

Apple’s actions are also hypocritical. Apple has no problem challenging governments when it is in its own financial self-interest (e.g., avoiding EU taxes or evading antitrust charges). However, when Proton does it for human rights reasons, it’s suddenly against Apple’s policies. 

Actions have consequences, and Apple’s actions are actively hampering the defense of human rights in Myanmar at a time when hundreds of people are dying.

Apple’s actions hinder progress on human rights

Apple has systematically blocked updates that outline that ProtonVPN can be used to overcome internet blocks used by regimes engaging in human rights abuses. We were forced to censor our app description to get approval from Apple to update our app. We strongly object to this policy of censorship and strong-arming. We believe that Apple’s policy of rejecting apps that “challenge governments” is simply wrong.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident with Apple but part of a longstanding corporate policy to put profits ahead of human rights. During the Hong Kong protests last year when ProtonVPN became one of the most downloaded apps in Hong Kong, Apple similarly forced us to self-censor. In 2019, it removed the HKmap.live and Quartz apps, which Hong Kong residents used to stay informed about the protests, from its App Store after it received pressure from China. 

Apple’s priority is to preserve access to markets and maintain its profits, so it almost never challenges the policies of dictators or authoritarian regimes. By giving in to tyrants, Apple is ignoring internationally recognized human rights and preventing organizations such as Proton from defending those in need. 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.

What can we do?

We can create an internet that promotes freedom around the world. The situation in Myanmar shows how encrypted services are an essential part of that internet as they allow activists, journalists, and everyday citizens to access the entire internet and privately communicate. When a regime turns against its own people, this ability to access and share the truth can save lives. More broadly, a free and independent internet is essential to democracy in the 21st century. But Big Tech companies like Apple have a different vision of the internet, one where profits matter more than people. 

This is why we support the EU’s efforts to regulate big tech companies through the Digital Markets Act. If you live in the EU, contact your MEP to express support for this legislation. You can also reduce the power of tech giants by switching away from Big Tech to services like ProtonMail, Signal, or DuckDuckGo.

Together, we can ensure that the internet of the future serves the interests of all citizens. 

PS: ProtonMail and ProtonVPN have free plans that are free forever. If you are an activist organization in Myanmar that could benefit from a paid Proton plan, please contact us at advocacy@protonmail.com. We have been supporting organizations in Myanmar with paid plans for free since February.

UPDATE March 25, 2021: We clarified which part of Apple’s policy we object to.

Andy is a founder of Proton, the company behind ProtonVPN and ProtonMail. He is a long time advocate of privacy rights and has spoken at TED, SXSW, and the Asian Investigative Journalism Conference about online privacy issues. Previously, Andy was a research scientist at CERN and has a PhD in Particle Physics from Harvard University. You can watch his TED talk online to learn more about our mission.

Post Comment

25 comments

  1. Olivier

    Apple demonstrates once again that its definition of privacy and freedom is clearly different from the widely accepted one.

  2. RIZA SIRIN

    – Can you also improve the PASSWORD MANAGER feature?

    – Then It would be good If there’s a ProtonApp feature like WhatsApp
    Best regards,

  3. Glen Kohler

    Apple’s policy towards Proton is deplorable. Long-time Apple product users have encountered mutiple examples of the company’s disregard for users’ rights, which translates as the disregard for human rights given in this article.

  4. Anon

    Very disturbing. I wish their was another mobile OS that had as much app support as iOS and Android. Thanks for informing us, Mr. Yen.

  5. Ruben

    This is a disgraceful move by Apple.

  6. Cadillac Kid

    Thank you for broadcasting this and giving us an action plan!!:-).

  7. Jan

    Thank you for informing us, indeed Apple’s attitude is not right one. Unfortunately, iOS is used on many devices and there are little alternatives.
    Thank you for informing us about such situation

  8. Michael

    If you cared so much about Myanmar to want to release this update as soon as possible, what is the reason after Apple approved it, you took 2 precious days to release the update? This is a huge flaw in your story, as reported by MacRumours. Source: https://www.macrumors.com/2021/03/25/apple-responds-protonvpn-app-update-rejection/

  9. Boooo Apple

    How can this be fought? Media attention? Do you have any plans?

  10. ZidanPragata

    “democratically elected government” is another fact the previous government also committed genocide of
    Rohingya Muslims.

  11. Matthew

    Thank you for your commitment towards human rights. I always knew apple was a bad company but I can’t believe they would go that far I hope this doesn’t fly under the radar and they are shunned for their actions. I live in the US and if you see where us Americans can vote on a bill or any way we can make change let me know. I know I have a Gmail account but I’ve been considering for a long time to migrating to services like yours to get away from big tech. I think it’s time for me to do so.

    Thank you

  12. Bill Sawyer

    As much as I love Proton and its services, and I really do dislike Apple, but… Selling a physical product is much more difficult than building a server farm in Europe. If Apple can’t sell products in a country, then there would be no physical device to install your app on. It boils down to whether you are viewing this in the short term or long term. Bottom line from what I am guessing from reading between the lines is… if you want piss off people in power, you need to be low key and sneaky about it. Whispers work better than screaming through a bullhorn.

  13. Kat Baker

    Keep fighting the good fight!
    Proton user since 01/2015.

  14. laurent

    While I entirely agree, arguably, the VPN still works and is available on iOS and iPadOS. Are there critical security measures for people outside the “Western World” which users should know about, i.e. are there any known major flaws in the current versions, please?

    Thank you very much. Best regards, Laurent

  15. Le Chevalier

    Don’t depend your lifeline onto some shit companies’ decisions, escape Apple monopoly. Use devices which allows 3rd-party package source and sideloading applications.

  16. Marcos Modena

    That’s the worm inside the Apple.

  17. Joy

    Well said, Andy. Apple can no longer have their cake and eat it too. I’m just one completely loyal customer, but I am probably not the only one disgusted enough with Apple’s failures to consider setting aside 15 years of investment in their ecosystem until they find a mirror. Tim feels no shame delivering pitch perfect obfuscations likely written by the same hands that craft the absurd App Store policy justifications. Apple customers care deeply about these issues; it is hard to celebrate any brand that uses its market power to deprive human rights activists the technologies that ensure their safety and ability to have a voice. Losing the respect and sales of Americans and Europeans to get some special pat on the head in the Chinese market is a common corporate strategy. It is not a smart one.

  18. Pablo

    I’m not a fan of Apple, and I have many problems with their behavior, such as their subservience to China and censorship. However, this post really feels like a bunch of whining over the fact that Apple doesn’t want politics in app descriptions. And so what? You couldn’t publish *important security updates* that have nothing to do with people in Myanmar using your app. How does protecting against account takeover make it easier for people to use ProtonVPN? It doesn’t. They can still use the VPN… Once again, Proton is virtue signaling and putting itself on a pedestal by invoking the suffering of others, as if ProtonVPN is the only VPN service on earth, which Myanmar citizens would be suffering if they didn’t have access to (which they always have, even with *one delayed and irrelevant update*). As a longtime Proton customer, I detest this sort of marketing.

  19. Some Young Guy

    Why not just change the app description and resubmit? I think the part about challenging the government needs to be removed, at the end of the day, Apple is running a business, they aren’t the arbiters of free speech and human rights. So maybe just change it a little as people are relying on YOU to get this resolved quickly.

  20. David

    This begs the question “Do you have a way to separate and distinguish the privacy of peaceful human rights protesters from that of terrorists and insurgents?” Do you, and how can anyone gain adequate assurances of such?
    DL

  21. Kevin

    Big fan of Proton tools. And of Apple products (less so of the company).
    You have a point, a valid point, but have over-dramatized it substantially. I don’t disagree that this is a distasteful move on Apple’s part, but it’s also true that the ball is now in your court. They are requiring a re-wording of the description, not a change in the app’s functionality. Are the blocked updates critical to the app? You can leave your app updates unavailable to the people who need it, or you can re-word a couple sentences. Is the principle of this ill-timed language dispute greater than the principle of making these apps available and up-to-date to the people who need it? I think not. Even if the principles were equal, I suggest making the required change to let the update through, and filing a lawsuit about the wording and the “censorship” later.

  22. Chris

    Find a way of becoming independent from apple and google app stores. Thanks.

  23. Adam Hawryluk

    I strongly support your position. Just wanted to say that. If you’ll create an open letter where internet users can sing under your letter/petition to Apple you can count my voice.

  24. Ingo

    Hello,

    When the critic is only about wording I would suggest to find words that will describe the service in a positive way, without using the words which create resistance. As English is not my mother tongue it would be difficult for me to support such an idea. But I know that it could change everything if the wording changes.
    I think, it will make things more difficult if we present thoughts and interpretations about the motives of others as facts. Good solutions are never found in the Extrems. Contradictions are necessary for good solutions. I would encourage both parties to continue the talk.
    Yours
    Ingo

  25. N

    This company has always been a scum. Always pretending that they do everything to protect people working in factories assembling Apple product. Coercion is their only way to go. Shame on this A.. H… of Tim Cook. I am disgusted by this company and I will no longer buy their sh…
    Go to Linux and everybody will feel free!

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