What’s the news: Apple on September 27 removed the popular Russian social media app VKontakte and other apps belonging to the developer (Mail.ru and VK Music, etc) from its App Store globally, VK said in a translated press release, spotted first by The Verge.
How big is VK: VK is the second largest internet company in Russia and its social media platform is the fifth-most popular site in Russia. Many of the company’s apps also come pre-installed on devices sold in the country due to a law that went into effect last year requiring tech companies to pre-install Russian-made apps, The Verge reported.
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Why does this matter: Apple’s ability to remove a popular app that is used by millions of users showcases the power the company holds over one of the key digital gateways: app stores. This power has been frequently criticised by developers. Most recently in India, Google abruptly removed TezEMI, one of IndiaGold’s apps, from the Play Store and terminated the company’s developer account without providing any warning, leading to outrage from IndiaGold’s CEO as well as other developers in the country. While the removal of VK is based on sanctions, the incident might nevertheless be used as an example by regulators and lawmakers around the world to illustrate the dominance of Apple and to justify new laws around app stores. Commenting on this development, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney who is engaged in a legal battle with Apple, tweeted:
IT SHOULDN'T BE THIS WAY! On Microsoft Windows, Apple macOS, and Linux, developers are free to distribute apps directly to users, and users are free to install apps directly from developers. Open platforms mean freedom, choice, and competition. Apple must open iOS.
— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) September 28, 2022
Why did Apple remove the app: In a statement given to The Verge, an Apple spokesperson confirmed that VK’s apps were removed and the developer account shut down due to sanctions imposed by the UK:
“These apps are being distributed by developers majority-owned or majority-controlled by one or more parties sanctioned by the UK government. In order to comply with these sanctions, Apple terminated the developer accounts associated with these apps, and the apps cannot be downloaded from any App Store, regardless of location.”
Earlier this week, the UK government imposed fresh sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. These sanctions affect executives at Gazprombank, a Russian bank with ties to VK, The Verge explained.
Apps still available on Google Play: VK’s apps are still available on Android Play Store and it’s not clear why Google is yet to remove them if sanctions are the reason behind Apple’s decision.
Existing downloads will work: VK applications that have already been installed will continue to work although there might be issues with notifications and payments, the company’s said.
What’s the next step for VK: The company has recommended users access VKontakte using the mobile website or on the desktop. “VK will continue to develop and support applications for iOS. Our experts do everything to maintain and continue to improve user comfort,” the company stated.
Russian government to investigate removal: The Russian Ministry of Digital Affairs told state-controlled media outlet RT that it was investigating “the reasons for deleting VK applications and developer accounts, underlining the social significance and scale of use of the services provided by the Russian company,” The Verge said.
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