Are Apple’s Privacy Policies Designed to Push out Competitors? Some Lawmakers Think So

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It’s no secret that Apple makes a pretty big deal about how it protects your privacy, both in terms of its overall policies on collecting user data to the built-in features in iOS and the iPhone. However, it seems now that at least some lawmakers are questioning whether there may be a more sinister motive behind Apple’s strong stance on user privacy.

Specifically, The Washington Post is reporting that some U.S. lawmakers are suggesting that Apple’s focus on user privacy is really just “a guise for anti-competitive behaviour” on the part of the iPhone maker.

The allegations come as part of a massive antitrust investigation that has recently begun into the behaviours of all of the big U.S. tech companies, being led by Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) as chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. In his first public comments on the matter, Rep. Cicilline obliquely pointed the finger at Apple’s recent privacy changes in iOS 13, suggesting that these may really just be smoke-and-mirrors to allow Apple to cover up anti-competitive behaviour.

I’m increasingly concerned about the use of privacy as a shield for anti-competitive conduct. There is a growing risk that without a strong privacy law in the United States, platforms will exploit their role as de facto private regulators by placing a thumb on the scale in their own favor.

Rep. David N. Cicilline (D–R.I.), chairman, House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee

The specific change that appears to be in question is a change to third-party app permissions in iOS 13 that now prevent developers from requesting that users let them track location even when they’re not using the app. However, despite this new limitation on third-party apps, Apple is able to track iPhone users’ location at will, and users aren’t able to easily opt out of the tracking by Apple and its own first-party apps without digging deeper into the iOS Settings.

While Apple claims that the change is totally in the interest of user privacy — preventing apps from being able to track users behind their backs — lawmakers are concerned that it gives Apple, and its own first-party apps, an unfair competitive advantage.

While it’s difficult to see how much that advantage would matter much on a purely software-based level — after all, Apple has every reason to promote a flourishing third-party app economy, since it gets a 30 percent cut of revenue for every app and in-app subscription sold on the App Store — the change could have more chilling effects among hardware accessory makers.

For example, one of the companies that’s been impacted by the new policy is Tile, the maker of well-known Bluetooth trackers that help people find lost items, and an accessory that Apple is expected to soon replicate with its own Apple AirTags. If Apple is able to offer benefits to its own AirTags that aren’t available to Tile and other competitors, that could easily be seen as an anti-competitive move, especially when it’s the result of features that developers had access to before but which the company has taken away, and AirTags being on the horizon makes the timing even more suspect.

By contrast, Apple’s AirPods have long been able to offer advantages over third-party Bluetooth headphones, with easy integrated pairing and built-in controls. However, in this case AirPods offer features that simply didn’t exist before, and Apple has done nothing to limit what other Bluetooth headphone manufacturers can do, many of whom even offer their own configuration apps on the App Store.

Privacy vs. Third-Party Developers

Apple, of course, is standing firm on the stance that its new policies are better for users, since there are millions of apps on the App Store and its often difficult to know what each developer is doing with things like location data behind users’ backs.

However, Apple also says its working with developers who are affected by the recent changes to try and find a compromise that allows Apple to meet their needs while also protecting user privacy.

We created the App Store with two goals in mind: that it be a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps, and a great business opportunity for all developers,. We continually work with developers and take their feedback on how to help protect user privacy while also providing the tools developers need to make the best app experiences.

Trudy Muller, Apple spokesperson

That said, the Post notes that U.S. lawmakers have been meeting with a few of Apple’s partners to discuss their concerns with the recent policy changes, according to people who are familiar with the meetings. One of the chief concerns appears to be Apple’s practice of making changes to App Store rules in the name of privacy that “tie the hands of competitors.”

One particularly salient example this year was Apple’s crackdown on parental control apps, which raised the ire of many third-party developers. The move was seen as somewhat capricious on Apple’s part, and even had some developers accusing Apple of kicking them out of the App Store to promote its own “Screen Time” feature that was introduced in iOS 12.

Apple’s stance, however, was that parental control developers had long been misusing a feature in iOS that was designed for companies and schools to manage those devices that they owned. In the end, Apple backed down and found a compromise that would allow parental controls to continue to exist, placing some restrictions on how apps could take advantage of its mobile device management features rather than prohibiting their use outright.

While it’s easy to believe the worst and assume that large companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google are inherently anticompetitive, there’s a danger in taking these views to an extreme, as was the case with parental control apps. With relatively few exceptions, Apple makes zero revenue from its own built-in apps like Screen Time, yet on the other hand it gets a 30 percent cut of every purchase of third-party apps like parental control. It’s difficult to imagine why on earth Apple would want to handicap those apps that it makes money from simply to promote its own free app. In fact, with the very obvious exception of apps like Spotify, it seems disingenuous even to refer to most third-party app developers as “competitors” of Apple.

Still, since lawmakers are looking for anticompetitive behaviour on the part of the Silicon Valley giants, it seems that Apple is going to have to tread lightly if it wants to avoid being placed even more squarely under the microscopes of regulators.

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