Apple picked a truly embarrassing time to wrongly reject a simple app update

Apple has a rocky relationship with some iOS developers because of its seemingly arbitrary decisions over what gets published and when — and now, because of a dumb miss, it’s being accused of putting profits ahead of human rights in Myanmar by the founder of ProtonMail and ProtonVPN, even though that’s probably not what happened.

Proton founder Andy Yen writes that Apple blocked an important security update to the company’s privacy-protecting ProtonVPN software simply because Apple didn’t like the app’s description, specifically this line:

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.

If you’re having a hard time finding anything objectionable there, you’re not alone — but Apple told Proton it wasn’t okay to encourage “users to bypass geo-restrictions or content limitations.”

The context here is that VPNs have become a critical tool for protesters in Myanmar to sidestep an huge internet crackdown during the country’s ongoing, bloody military coup. One researcher told Bloomberg that VPN use has increased 7,200 percent since early last month, when the government blocked Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

I’m with Daring Fireball’s John Gruber on this: I highly doubt Apple made a conscious decision to deny ProtonVPN to Myanmar — the company’s smart enough to know how that would look, and it’s not like the app was blocked, just a security update. Yen is an outspoken critic of the App Store now, having told Congress (and The Verge) last year how he’d been strong-armed by Apple.

But the fact it’s just a security update makes the rejection extra dumb, because Apple explicitly said last year that it’d no longer hold up bug fixes because of these arbitrary guideline violations.

Regardless, Apple comes off looking a little like the bad guy here, especially now that ProtonVPN has taken the high road and ceded to Apple’s demands. “Due to the emergency situation in Myanmar, we removed the language about challenging governments which Apple found objectionable, and the app was finally approved,” Yen tells The Verge. Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment.

That perception seems like it’s going to be increasingly hard to fight, now that antitrust scrutiny of Apple’s App Store has been heating up in Congress and the courts, with the Epic App Store trial set to begin May 3rd.

It doesn’t help when Apple is seemingly caught breaking its own rules and needing to apologize, particularly when it could be seen as retaliation against an app developer (Yen) who’d previously spoken out. Last year, many other developers weren’t willing to come forward and admit they’d been forced to add in-app purchases to their apps, specifically because they feared retaliation.

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