For people trying to avoid online distractions on their smartphones and computers, a service called Freedom has offered the ability to block certain websites and apps at certain times.
Users of the Durham, North Carolina, company’s desktop and smartphone apps or browser extensions can choose to block Facebook during business hours, filter out YouTube after dinner, or lock out the entire internet during a busy workday. But late last month, the company announced that the app had been removed from the iOS App Store, under Apple policies that limit how apps can filter content in other apps.
Freedom’s iOS app used the platform’s support for virtual private network technology to block access to internet addresses associated with particular apps. For instance, the app could block connections to facebook.com from the Facebook app or Safari, or it could block addresses used by streaming platforms to serve up content. Unlike traditional VPNs that protect privacy by routing internet traffic through encrypted tunnels to secure servers, Freedom didn’t actually send traffic through its own computers. Instead, explains CEO Fred Stutzman, “It uses the VPN API to basically decide what traffic is going to leave the phone, and what traffic is not going to leave the phone.”
Freedom isn’t the only company to have content-filtering software pulled from the App Store. The makers of the ad blocking software AdGuard, which used a similar VPN technique to filter out unwanted ads, discontinued a version of its software in July after receiving a similar rejection. Thomas Reed, director of Mac and mobile at security software company Malwarebytes, tweeted in July that his company had also been affected by the apparent policy shift, though Malwarebytes declined to comment further.
And Future Mind, a Warsaw-based company that develops an ad-blocking app simply called AdBlock, has also had to change its product after four years of App Store distribution to comply with Apple’s policies. “At some point, everything changed,” says CTO Tomasz Koperski. “Apple just changed their minds, and there’s no easy solution to this.”
Apple stays quiet
Apple didn’t respond to repeated inquiries from Fast Company. Previous reports have indicated that the company has told developers it won’t allow apps that block content in other apps. The Freedom ban fell under a catch-all policy that says, “Apps should use APIs and frameworks for their intended purposes and should indicate that integration in their app description,” according to Apple news site MacRumors. The only apparent exception is for Safari content blockers, which use another iOS API to lock out ads or other unwanted material in the iOS web browser.
The policy is consistent with Apple’s general philosophy of “sandboxing” applications on its mobile operating system, so apps have limited ability to interfere with each other or alter the overall workings of the phone. That’s a design decision often praised by security experts, citing the lack of malware issues on the platform.
Google’s Play Store, the other major smartphone app market, has long openly banned Android apps that “interfere with” other apps, whether that means blocking ads or enabling cheating in video games. Freedom previously had an Android version of its app and plans to release a new version in the future. Stutzman says the company pulled the app due to technical changes in the Android platform rather than policy changes.
But Apple has also been accused of yanking apps that threaten its bottom line rather than customer devices or sensibilities. “The new guidelines about VPN apps I think are meant to promote the attractiveness of the ecosystem as an ad delivery method,” says Hestres. “It’s an example of Apple exercising control of what users can and cannot do with their devices, perhaps to the detriment of users.”
In a recent blog post, Freedom’s Stutzman pointed out that Apple recently released its own tool called Screen Time with a similar function. But, he says, that program is focused more on setting overall limits on daily usage of apps, rather than blocking particular apps at particular times, so it might not be as useful to all of Freedom’s fans.
“Of course, it is interesting that Apple is removing us from the store while they’re rolling out features very similar to ours,” he says.
It’s possible that Apple is concerned that customers will genuinely be confused by apps using VPN technology to do something other than secure their internet connections.
“You could sort of see them saying, ‘You’re potentially being a little bit misleading there,'” says Joseph Jerome, policy counsel on the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Privacy & Data Project.
Still, the shift underscores how Apple can, with little advance notice, shift how developers and end users use its products, even after they’ve purchased them.
“They are trying to limit the technology that any user should be able to use in any way he wants to,” says Koperski of Future Mind. “They’re trying to control how you use a certain set of features on the device, and I don’t think it’s a good direction.”
In a 2013 paper, Luis Hestres, now an assistant professor of communication at the University of Texas at San Antonio, pointed to examples of apps being pulled from the App Store amid external pressure, from ones with politically controversial content to an app that enabled users to create mock driver’s licenses. More recently, the store pulled an app from Infowars, the controversial right-wing media platform led by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Apple has also removed a number of apps from its Chinese app store, including illegal gambling apps and VPN apps that are used to circumvent China’s internet restrictions.
Outside of China, apps that provide ordinary VPN service rather than content filtering seem to be safe. Opera, the browser maker, recently discontinued Android and iOS VPN offerings, but there was no sign that was tied to restrictions by Apple or Google. Users were offered discounts to get the service directly from SurfEasy, a company formerly owned by Opera that built the underlying technology and still offers its VPN tool through the App Store and Google Play. Opera, which sold SurfEasy to Symantec last year, didn’t respond to an inquiry from Fast Company.
Last month, Facebook removed its own VPN app from the App Store, reportedly after Apple told the company that the app violated recently instituted guidelines on data collection, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal. The app, Onavo, also doubled as a data collector, yielding information on smartphone user behavior outside its apps and helping to inform Facebook’s strategy in relation to other app makers.