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A group of European mobile operators has asked the EU to ban Apple’s new iCloud Private Relay feature, claiming that it’s undermining their right to manage and monitor web traffic on their networks.
According to a report from The Telegraph, Vodafone, Telefonica, Orange, and T-Mobile sent a letter to the European Commission last summer to express their concern with the iCloud Private Relay service, which was previewed in June as part of iOS 15.
According to the article, mobile operators claim that they have “become locked in a power struggle with Apple.” They’ve been “urging regulators to outlaw the iPhone maker’s encryption technology,” claiming that it undermines “digital sovereignty,” and that private relay will prevent them from having control over their networks.
The operators are also calling on the European Commission to label Apple as a “digital gatekeeper” — a move that would bring Apple under new regulations and scrutiny pertaining to services like iCloud and other internet-related operations.
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What’s Really Going on Here?
The EU has not yet responded to this request from the carriers, but it seems clear that this is as much about political posturing as preventing iCloud Private Relay from being used on their networks, as Apple has already effectively provided them with a way to opt out.
As we’ve previously explained, businesses and schools can easily block private relay; Apple actually offers specific instructions for how to do this, and it’s something any rookie network administrator should be able to figure out in about thirty seconds.
In this sense, mobile operator networks are no different from any other enterprise network. This means it would be trivial for any of these European operators to block iCloud Private Relay if that’s all they really wanted to do.
While the mobile operators are technically correct about what iCloud Private Relay does to their ability to manage and monitor network traffic, the other side of the argument is whether they should be able to do this in the first place.
The EU is still struggling with issues of net neutrality, and while it’s safe to say that they’re much further ahead than the U.S., which saw the death of the initiative under the Trump administration, the battle is far from over.
In the EU, however, the issues of “digital sovereignty” and “net neutrality” have been clashing, as regulators try to figure out the fine line between letting network providers manage and maintain their networks and ensuring that they’re not unfairly limiting or restricting the traffic that can pass through them.
It’s also interesting that the mobile operators are targeting Apple specifically here. As with many new features that Apple rolls out, iCloud Private Relay isn’t presenting a new problem — it’s basically just a VPN, and those have been around for years.
If anything, iCloud Private Relay should be less of a concern when compared to a traditional VPN. After all, it doesn’t bypass geographic restrictions, it protects almost no traffic at all outside of the Safari browser, and it’s easily blocked by the carriers themselves.
Of course, VPNs still aren’t all that widely used, particularly on cellular networks. iCloud Private Relay threatens to bring this kind of zero-knowledge traffic encryption into the mainstream, which is understandably a bigger concern to mobile carriers, but it still sounds like this is ultimately more of a turf war than anything else.
By asking the European Commission to rule on iCloud Private Relay and its impact on the digital sovereignty of European internet providers and mobile operators, it sets a precedent for disallowing the use of VPNs and online encryption in general, at least as it pertains to traffic moving around the European internet.