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Apple is under scrutiny for squashing competitors on the App Store — again

Apple built its own screen-time management app. Then things got weird on the App Store.

People shop in an Apple retail store in New York City in January 2019.
People shop in an Apple retail store in New York City in January 2019.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Apple reportedly isn’t all that enthused about apps that help users cut down on screen time — at least when they’re made by its competitors.

The Cupertino, California-based company is under scrutiny yet again over allegations of anticompetitive practices. This time, the issue stems from a report this weekend from the New York Times’ Jack Nicas that said Apple has gone after 11 of the 17 most-downloaded apps meant to help users cut down on screen time or help parents monitor and limit what their children are doing on their devices. It has removed the apps altogether or restricted them, for example, by requiring them to remove features.

Apple has cast its decisions as ones meant to protect user privacy and security. It says the apps it targeted were using a “highly invasive technology” that could be used by hackers to access users’ devices for malicious purposes and that it either asked the developers to make changes to the apps or removed them. (To be sure, Apple doesn’t want people cutting down on screen time too much, either it wants users to use its services, such as Apple News and Apple Music.)

This is the latest development in an ongoing conversation about Apple and whether it seeks to stifle competition within its App Store. In March, music streaming service Spotify filed a complaint against Apple in Europe alleging that the iPhone maker unfairly stifles competition by imposing a “tax” on digital subscription services made by its rivals and otherwise seeks to give its own products advantages over those made by others.

Apple insists it is just trying to foster the best and most secure App Store ecosystem possible. But some observers say its activities look like an attempt to freeze competitors out.

“That’s the trade-off to focus on, the fact that Apple does state that it has a reason for what it’s doing but that the primary effect is to keep rivals out of the market,” Rutgers University law professor Michael Carrier said.

Apple announced new parental-control features last summer. Then it started purging rival apps.

The Times story outlines how Apple clamped down on multiple screen time and parental-control apps. It notes the suspicious timing of its activities: Apple started to require competitors to make changes to their apps or face removal from the App Store soon after it started to offer those services on its own.

In June 2018, Apple announced it would build into its iOS 12 features to help users monitor their screen time and allow parents to monitor reports on their children’s mobile activity and set limits for them. It started offering the tools in September.

Soon after, according to the Times, Apple started to target apps doing something similar:

Apple told the companies that their apps violated App Store rules, like enabling one iPhone to control another, although it had allowed such practices for years and had approved hundreds of versions of their apps.

Apple allows corporations to use such software to control employees’ phones. But last year, the company stopped apps from using the software to enable parents to control their children’s devices. The Apple spokeswoman said Apple had blocked the practice because app makers could gain access to too much information on the children’s devices. Apple cited other rule violations when removing some apps, but the spokeswoman didn’t explain the reasoning behind those moves.

Some of the apps targeted include parental-control apps OurPact and Mobicip and website blocker Freedom.

Apple has claimed its actions were an effort to protect users because the apps opened up too much access to their information. Apple SVP of worldwide marketing Philip Schiller told the Times that Apple had acted “extremely responsibly” in protecting children from “technologies that could be used to violate their privacy and security.”

In a statement on Sunday, Apple claimed that the parental-control apps it went after were using a “highly invasive technology called Mobile Device Management,” which gives a third party control and access to sensitive information. It says the technology could allow hackers to access user information and it was trying to ensure safety and security in its decisions.

“Apple has always supported third-party apps on the App Store that help parents manage their kids’ devices,” the company said. “Contrary to what The New York Times reported over the weekend, this isn’t a matter of competition. It’s a matter of security.”

Former Apple executive Tony Fadell in a series of tweets over the weekend said that Apple’s screen time features were a “rush job” and are still “very non-intuitive to use.” He said Apple should instead “be building true APIs for Screen Time so the ‘privacy’ concerns are taken into account” instead of limiting choices in the App Store. “Discouraging entrepreneurs from creating more solutions is the antithesis to what we need,” he wrote.

In a phone interview, Fadell told Recode that it’s not just Apple that needs an API for screen time apps but also Google, Sony, Nintendo, and others, “because you want to make a meta control app so that you can see the usage across all digital platforms.”

Apple did not return a request for comment on this matter.

The App Store is coming under increasing scrutiny over how it deals with competitors

“We’ve heard this story before of Apple squashing competitive apps like grapes,” said Philip Elmer-DeWitt, a journalist who has covered Apple for decades and hosts a blog about the company. “This is an old story.”

Perhaps an old one, but a relevant one.

The conversation about anticompetitive practices from big tech companies, including Apple, is picking up in the United States and around the world. Earlier this month, Dutch enforcers started investigating whether Apple was promoting its own apps over those of competitors. Cybersecurity firm Kaspersky has filed an antitrust complaint against Apple in Russia, and, as mentioned, Spotify is targeting Apple in a complaint in the EU.

In the US, buzz about Apple and how it has handled App Store rivals has picked up as well, thanks at least in part to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s push to break up tech companies. In March, the 2020 Democratic Party presidential contender rolled out an ambitious plan aimed at promoting competition in the tech industry. In it, she proposed breaking up Google, Facebook, Amazon — and Apple.

“Apple, you’ve got to break it apart from their App Store. It’s got to be one or the other. Either they run the platform or they play in the store,” she told Nilay Patel at The Verge. “They don’t get to do both at the same time.”

Her issue with Apple is similar to the criticisms she’s offered of Google and Amazon: These companies get a competitive advantage in the search results on their platform and can prioritize their products over those made by third parties.

“If you run a platform where others come to sell, then you don’t get to sell your own items on the platform, because you have two comparative advantages. One, you’ve sucked up information about every buyer and every seller before you’ve made a decision about what you’re going to sell,” Warren said. “And second, you have the capacity — because you run the platform — to prefer your product over anyone else’s product. It gives an enormous comparative advantage to the platform.”

Fadell, who was one of the designers of the iPod and is now a principal at investment firm Future Shape, said that with the parental-control apps, Apple may have identified one app truly violating its rules and decided to shut it down, but it’s not clear why it’s gone after so many of them. “These apps have existed for years, so why not just shut down the offending one versus shutting them all down?”

He speculated that Apple could be planning some sort of additional announcement on the screen-time front for its Worldwide Developers Conference in June and is attempting to clean up its App Store ahead of that to avoid more anticompetitive allegations.

Apple insists its closed ecosystem isn’t a monopoly and that it’s just doing what’s best for customers. Even if you don’t buy that, Carrier, the Rutgers law professor, said, it’s not clear whether US antitrust enforcement is equipped to handle the situation: “On its face, what Apple is doing is clearly meant to hurt competitors, any argument they’re offering would really not seem to be legitimate. But nonetheless, it’s not clear that that is punished by antitrust law. I think that would strike some people as being concerning.”

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