Should Apple Be Forced to Loosen Its Grip on App Store Policies? A Coalition Has Formed to Take Down Apple’s “Monopolistic Control” Over Mobile Apps

October 11, 2020

Apple is no stranger to controversy seeing as it has been at the center of countless disputes including ones over anti-competition practices, patents, employee working conditions, and many more over the years. So, what is the latest controversy Apple finds itself entrenched in? Accusations of monopolistic management of its mobile app store and unfair treatment of developers.

A coalition of thirteen companies, including Epic Games, Spotify, Tile, and Match Group has banded together to fight for “fair treatment [of developers] by…app stores and the platform owners who operate them.” The broad language in the Coalition’s vision statement points to a desire for change across the industry, but the rest of its website takes aim specifically at Apple’s “anti-competitive behaviors.” The Coalition for App Fairness claims that Apple “has near total control over the mobile ecosystem” and that it has been “tax[ing] consumers and crush[ing] innovation.” The Coalition has identified three main issues it has with Apple’s app store: carefully crafted anti-competitive policies, the 30% “app tax” on creators and consumers, and no consumer freedom.

Google’s Play store implements similar policies to those the Coalition is attacking Apple for, including imposing a 30% app tax and engaging in allegedly anti-competitive practices. The similarities between the two companies’ policies may leave some questioning the Coalition’s choice to single Apple out. Google’s name is notably left off of the Coalition’s website, perhaps due to one key difference between the two app stores: unlike Apple, Google allows users to download apps from outside the Play store. While downloading apps from outside the Play store has been criticized for being a difficult process, it remains an option. Giving users this choice pushes Google one step closer to meeting the Coalition’s call for platforms to offer a “level playing field” for developers.

This comes in the midst of Apple’s antitrust legal battle with Epic Games over Apple’s removal of Epic Games’ app, Fortnite, after Epic’s failure to comply with Apple’s app store policies. The Coalition is adamant that “after nearly a decade with no oversight, regulation, or fair competition, it’s time for Apple to be held accountable.” How exactly does the Coalition seek to enforce this accountability?

With all of these unhappy developers coming together to demand fair, developer-friendly practices, if Apple wasn’t feeling the pressure to rethink its policies before, it certainly should be now.

The Coalition has set out 10 Principles it hopes Apple will implement in its app store. These principles include not competing with developers through the use of a developer’s own data, not requiring developers to use an app store’s “ancillary services…including payment systems,” allowing direct communication between app users and the developers “for legitimate business purposes,” and not “self-preferencing” or “interfer[ing] with users’ choices,” among others. With all of these unhappy developers coming together to demand fair, developer-friendly practices, if Apple wasn’t feeling the pressure to rethink its policies before, it certainly should be now. Despite this pressure, it is unlikely that Apple will implement these policies without a court order or similar action that will force Apple’s compliance.

In the face of similar accusations in the past, Apple has maintained that its stringent policies are a necessity for “privacy, security, and quality” purposes – vital considerations in the digital marketplace. Apple even created its own webpage dedicated to showing its dedication to a secure marketplace in which “privacy and security [is] built into everything [they] do.” As “fear and distrust [are] flooding the marketplace,” privacy concerns are surging and will continue to do so as consumers become more aware of how companies use their seemingly innocuous practices to store data and learn all about them. Lawmakers and regulators are put in the tough position of having to strike a balance between consumers’ privacy concerns and companies’ monopoly concerns.

With the Coalition still in its early stages and Apple remaining silent as of yet, there are many unknowns and it remains to be seen how this will unfold – will Apple voluntarily change the way it runs its app store? What steps will the Coalition be willing to take if Apple refuses? If this leads to litigation, where will the courts fall? What we do know is if Apple does make changes to how it runs its app store, by choice or by requirement, it will “fundamentally alter [this] multibillion-dollar industry.”

Amy E. Jones