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Apple’s App Store mysteriously went dark in Iran yesterday

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Enlarge/ Tehran, the capital city of Iran.A.Davey via Creative Commons

Yesterday, users in Iran lost access to Apple's App Store. When users attempted to connect or download apps, they received a message saying that the App Store was "unavailable in the country or region" in which they resided. The cessation of services began around noon GMT yesterday, and services resumed around 5:00am GMT this morning, according to social media posts and sources who spoke with Bleeping Computer. A virtual private network (VPN) could still reach the App Store normally.

Media coverage and social media posts were quick to speculate that the store's downtime was an Apple-imposed ban driven by US economic sanctions against Iran, as Apple is based in the US. However, we are not yet aware of evidence to support this. An accidental outage is also possible, as is a block imposed by Iran's government—Iran has previously blocked the Google Play store, though that block was later lifted. Apple has not responded to our requests for clarification.

Because of US sanctions, Apple has no formal presence or operation in Iran, and its App Store is not officially supported there. The company does not sell phones there, nor does it work with any vendors that do. It nevertheless had an 11-percent market share in the country as of last year, as Iranians have purchased millions of iPhones smuggled in from other countries. Iranian app developers have published apps to the App Store for use by Iranian iPhone owners.

US President Barack Obama's administration issued a license that allowed app stores to operate in Iran (it was not permitted previously). The license was framed as a way to win hearts and minds by allowing the free flow of information.

In August 2017, The New York Times reported that Apple removed from its store many apps created by Iranian developers to provide services in Iran, including popular Uber-like ridesharing app Snapp and Seamless-like food delivery app DelionFoods, both of which were popular in the country. Iranian developers claimed that Apple issued the following statement to them at that time:

We are unable to include your app, [App Name], on the App Store. Under the U.S. sanctions regulations, the App Store cannot host, distribute, or do business with apps or developers connected to certain U.S. embargoed countries. This area of law is complex and constantly changing. If the existing restrictions shift, we encourage you to resubmit your app for inclusion on the App Store.

These app removals were part of an ongoing effort at Apple to remove apps "which facilitate transactions for businesses or entities based in Iran," according to Techrasa. The license issued by the Obama administration did not extend to helping developers in this case.

Google is also a US-based company, and it is subject to the same restrictions as Apple. The Google Play Store for Android devices is officially available in Iran, but Google policy limits which kinds of app downloads are available; only free apps can be downloaded in Iran, as paid apps would violate the sanctions. Google also removed Iranian apps from the Google Play Store last fall.

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