A report from earlier this week that European mobile operators are fighting to have iCloud Private Relay banned in the EU raised the eyebrows of more than a few Apple fans and privacy advocates, especially since it’s clearly being made for larger political reasons. Carriers can easily disable iCloud Private Relay on their networks, so there’s little need to seek an outright ban other than to make a point, and ensure that users won’t have any room to complain about it.
However, disabling the feature is undoubtedly what many of these carriers appear to be moving toward, at least on some level, and since T-Mobile is one of the carriers involved in the European petition, it came under some scrutiny from U.S. customers, who found that T-Mobile was blocking iCloud Private Relay in the U.S.
T-Mobile claimed it was only doing this for those on certain plans, specifically those that include parental controls and other filtering features that iCloud Private Relay would be able to bypass. There’s evidence to support that this was the company’s intention, but despite this, many iPhone users who weren’t on any of the plans that should have been affected still found their access to iCloud Private Relay being blocked.
The carrier’s answer to this quandary was to blame iOS 15.2, suggesting that there was a bug causing the feature to be switched off for some users.
From our experience, however, this excuse didn’t seem to hold much water, at least not in the way that T-Mobile described it as a “default,” since our extensive testing of iCloud Private Relay in all the prior iOS versions has never shown the option switched off — at least not until after iOS 15 already detects iCloud Private Relay seemingly being blocked.
Not surprisingly, T-Mobile has now walked back that earlier claim, issuing a follow-up statement making it clear in no uncertain terms that updating to iOS 15.2 does not change any settings when a user updates.
Apple doesn’t change customers settings when they update to iOS 15.2. Customers may see an error message if they previously toggled iCloud Private Relay or Limit IP Address Tracking off in their cellular Data Options Settings.
It’s likely no coincidence that T-Mobile released its “revised” statement around the same time that Apple weighed in with its own, emphatically stating that nothing changed in iOS 15.2 that would have disabled iCloud Private Relay by itself.
No changes were made to iCloud Private Relay in iOS 15.2 that would have toggled the feature off. Users are encouraged to check their Settings to see if Private Relay is enabled on their device or for a specific network.
It’s likely that Apple had a few words with T-Mobile after it began pointing the finger at iOS 15.2, and both companies agreed to “clarify” the situation.
What’s more interesting, however, is that Apple also unequivocally states that none of its “carrier partners” should be blocking iCloud Private Relay, which may not be entirely true.
We have rolled Private Relay out in beta and it’s available in most countries around the world. No carrier partners have blocked their users from taking advantage of Private Relay.
After all, T-Mobile has already stated that it is intentionally blocking iCloud Private Relay for users who have plans and features that include parental controls and other filtering. This makes sense of course, since iCloud Private Relay could allow kids to easily bypass parental controls — and as of now iOS 15 lacks a distinct Screen Time setting to block kids from turning it on, although it does form part of the overall Account Changes restrictions.
European carriers are also among Apple’s “carrier partners,” and there have been reports of iCloud Private Relay being blocked there. Certainly, if their petition to the European Commission to ban iCloud Private Relay entirely were to be approved, this would result in those carriers effectively blocking their users from “taking advantage of Private Relay.” However, the Commission hasn’t ruled on that or even responded to it, and with the speed at which the EU moves, it could be years before it even comes up for discussion.
So, if what Apple is saying is true, this means that the European mobile operators haven’t yet decided to block iCloud Private Relay. That’s not what some European iPhone users are reporting, but of course, we also saw the same thing with T-Mobile customers in the U.S.
What’s Really Going on Here?
If anything, all this excitement is making it pretty clear why Apple has kept a “beta” label on its iCloud Private Relay feature. Apple is not yet making any guarantees that it will work as designed, and even if it’s true that no carrier in the world is blocking it now, that doesn’t mean that iPhone users will always be able to take advantage of it.
The internet can be a wild and wooly place, and the same way that you may sometimes have problems getting at your favourite websites, or checking your email, you may also have problems getting at iCloud Private Relay. Not everything always runs smoothly, and there are many things that can go wrong as your digital packets hop around between your ISP, cellular provider, and backbone routers, and everything else that lives in the path between you and your destination.
On average, it takes anywhere from 8 to 15 hops before your traffic gets to an iCloud Private Relay server. Sure, it’s encrypted every step of the way — which is precisely why iCloud Private Relay is necessary — but that’s also numerous places where things can go wrong.
Apple is still working on refining the iCloud Private Relay features in iOS/iPadOS 15 and macOS Monterey, but until recently, we’ve found the feature to be overly sensitive to communication failures. In short, iOS 15.2 and prior seem to be far too eager to assume iCloud Private Relay is blocked, turning off the setting for a given network and leaving it off until it’s re-enabled manually by the user.
How to Fix iCloud Private Relay Block
Apple seems to have improved this in the latest iOS 15.3 beta, and it’s published an update to its support article explaining that you may need to turn iCloud Private Relay (iOS 15.0/15.1) or Limit IP Address Tracking (iOS 15.2 and later) back ON, manually.
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