As Apple kills more Russia VPN apps, it's time to think about alternatives

 Icon of blocked VPN on a black smartphone screen on a man hands. Blocking VPN services concept .
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Downloading one of the best VPN services is becoming increasingly hard in Russia as Big Tech giants reportedly remove providers' apps from their official stores. That's a big issue for all those users relying on the security software to keep accessing the free internet.

Whether you live in or have visited the country before, you're surely aware that you cannot access a vast amount of online resources unless spoofing your IP address via a virtual private network (VPN). While video-sharing YouTube is highly censored, the likes of X (formerly Twitter), Facebook, and Instagram are all blocked alongside a long list of banned URLs, which also include independent news channels like Dozhd, DOXA, and Meduza.

To prevent citizens from accessing services deemed illegal, Roskomnadzor, the Russian censor body, has long been targeting VPN usage through several means - including with the support of US-based Big Tech giants. In the most recent of these incidents, some popular VPN apps began disappearing from the country's Apple App Store on July 4, 2024.

"Big Tech companies shouldn't splinter the internet to fight Putin’s propaganda and shouldn't create an information vacuum by following censorship requests," Anastasiya Zhyrmont, Access Now Policy Manager for Eastern Europe & Central Asia, told me.

The truth is, however, it is not the first time Big Tech giants have become complicit in the Kremlin's censorship. In September 2022, both Apple and Google removed Alexey Navalny's Smart Voting project app from their stores when authorities asked so. Apple reportedly killed a total of seven apps at Russian order that year, with 12 further applications disappearing in 2023.

Secure web browser providers Mozilla and Opera received the request to block their anti-censorship plugin extensions just a few weeks ago. While both of the companies complied, Mozilla decided to restore the VPN-like feature following backlash.

Both digital rights experts at Access Now and Roskomsvoboda (a Russian group) confirmed to TechRadar that Google has also received such orders from the Russian regulatory agency. While the company seems to have already started notifying some proxy services of potential removal, it has not taken any action so far. Yet, this may change considering that Google-owned YouTube has already helped Russia censor free speech in the past.

"We find this situation very critical, as if Apple, and then Google, hide the applications for users in Russia, the situation with bypassing blockages in Russia will become similar to the situation in China," Stanislav Shakirov, CTO at Roskomsvoboda CTO and founder of Privacy Accelerator, told me. "This will significantly complicate bypassing censorship in Russia, as over time all applications for bypassing blockages will be blocked."

What VPN apps have Apple removed so far?

While experts expect VPN and proxy app casualties to keep rising in the next few days, Roskomsvoboda confirmed to TechRadar (in an email sent at 7 pm BST on July 4) that eight VPN services can no longer be accessed from the Apple App Store in Russia. These are:

Le VPN and Red Shield VPN both shared the communication received by Apple to notify the removal "per demand from Roskomnadzor" (see tweet above). When I asked, NordVPN confirmed it had unlisted its apps from Russian app stores back in 2023 "due to moral and legal reasons." On July 5, 2024, Reuters reported a total of 25 VPN apps were affected.

This new wave of VPN app removals in Russia isn't certainly new, though. As for last week's study from AppCensorship, nine VPN apps were already unavailable either on the App Store or the Play Store prior to July 4. These included NordVPN, PIA, Malwarebytes Privacy VPN, and Surfshark. "Often, availability is limited to one platform, with only a few VPNs consistently unavailable on both," experts explain in a tweet.

VPN unavailability is just one side of the issue. As of November 2023, Russia had reportedly blocked the domain of at least eight of the 15 most popular VPN services across the country. HideMy.Name even became the first VPN to ever challenge the Russian censor body in Court, which later branded the company as a foreign agent. Even worse, a new law enforced in March criminalizes the spread of information about ways to circumvent internet restrictions.

How can you keep using Russia VPNs?

Even though it's hard to say if more VPN apps will disappear from Russian app stores, what's certain is that you need to find an alternative way to download a VPN or other circumvention tool.

For starters, Zhyrmont from Access Now suggests "downloading as many VPNs still available as possible." This can come in handy as you will be able to hop from one service to another in case the Kremlin manages to block them on a server level. I recommend checking out our guide on the best free VPN apps on the market to get the most secure freebies out there.

Both Access Now and Roskomsvoboda mention the option of changing your Apple ID region to regain access to deleted VPNs. You can find some instructions on how to do so in Russian here. However, this might not be a viable solution for all. "Many users are scared to change such settings, and they will be left alone with censored media and social networks," Shakirov from Roskomsvoboda told me.

If you are an Android user, you can use sideloading capabilities to download removed VPN apps directly on your device. Also, look out for alternative installation pages and services. For instance, Le VPN launched a special service that allows you to connect to some secret servers using third-party open-source software and obfuscated VPN connections.

Besides VPNs, there are also some other tools that can help you to bypass geo-restrictions and boost online anonymity. Tor Browser, for example, reroutes your internet traffic through at least three encryption layers while spoofing your IP location. FreeBrowser is a similar tool for Android devices that you can install directly on your phone to grant access to geo-restricted content.