In a letter and a blog post, Apple and Google took up against a set of bills that are being considered by Congress. The tech giants claim that the antitrust bills would harm consumer security and privacy, by “breaking” services such as Gmail and search bars. Apple added that would threaten the integrity of their popular new consumer-focused privacy policies.
In part, the antitrust bills would prevent these companies from prioritizing their own products on their platforms and could also limit the fees that they charge to third-party developers. Both bills have bipartisan support, but are taking some time to wind through Congress as they are not considered a priority item at present.
Tech firms claim antitrust bills could ruin their products
The first antitrust bill that the tech giants are taking aim at is the The American Innovation and Choice Online Act, introduced in October by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) along with the House Judiciary Subcommittee. This bill would prevent platforms from discriminating in favor of their own products, or acting as a gatekeeper to suppress or screen out rivals. A second bill (the Open App Markets Act), introduced by Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), addresses the fees to developers charged by major tech platforms such as the Apple App Store.
Apple’s complaint came in the form of a letter to the antitrust bill sponsors as well as Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Richard J. Durbin and subcommittee ranking Republican Mike Lee. Published by Bloomberg, the letter was written by Apple’s senior director of government affairs Tim Powderley and invokes ransomware and targeting of children as threats to security and privacy that could become more prominent.
Apple has two particular concerns with these antitrust bills: the practice of “sideloading,” which the Grassley-Klobuchar bill would specifically allow, and maintaining its fees of 15% to 30% for developers conducting transactions on the App Store.
The issue of sideloading addresses Apple’s unique “walled garden” approach to app installation, which prevents users from doing anything but downloading approved and screened apps from the App Store without jailbreaking the device (and most likely voiding any sort of remaining warranty or support coverage). This issue was highlighted in Apple’s recent legal battle against Epic Games, which ended in mixed results for both parties. Apple won the bulk of that dispute, but the door was left open for it to be legally compelled to allow third-party app stores and sideloading on its devices. Apple argues that this would compromise user security and privacy by allowing more apps on the platform that harvest data and attempt to pass malware.
Apple’s fees have also long been a point of contention for developers, and the focus of other antitrust investigations in several different countries. Most developers are charged 30%, and some argue that this fee is excessive and unfair given that Apple controls effectively half of the mobile app market.
Google’s criticism of the antitrust bills was along similar lines, but came in the form of a public blog post and focused even more on alleged threats to user security and privacy. Google said that Gmail, Search and other products could be compromised by the proposed new requirements. It claimed that the presence of similar security features in the products of competitors could prevent it from implementing those features in its own products (the “Safe Browsing” mode of Chrome given as a specific example of something currently existing that might have to be removed), and that it might be forced to allow “spammy” services to appear in search results and list in the Play Store.
Security and privacy concerns seem limited to Big Tech firms
The pushback against the proposed antitrust bills thus far comes exclusively from big tech firms on the relative footing of these two giants; smaller tech companies, such as Zynga and Yelp, did not have the same security and privacy worries as they expressed support for the bills.
In addition to the potentially greater access to big tech platforms and lowered fees, smaller tech firms would stand to gain a more competitive footing with the internal products of tech giants. For example, Google might not be able to automatically display its own Maps product when users search for an address. And shoppers browsing Amazon might no longer see the retail giant’s own lines of “Choice” and “Basics” products catapulted to the top of their product searches automatically.
And there is one development that would please at least one tech giant: Facebook would stand to gain if Apple’s App Transparency Tracking framework was even partially invalidated by antitrust bills. Meant to protect the security and privacy of device users, the change has done considerable damage to the targeted advertising market that Facebook is reliant on for income.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is slated to review both of the antitrust bills this week. Six similar antitrust bills were passed in the House in 2021, but none has drawn any special interest from the Senate as of yet. In the meantime, Chris Olson, (CEO of The Media Trust) feels that regulation that fails to address app review processes is ultimately not going to be of much benefit to user security and privacy either way: “Antitrust legislation may or may not benefit consumers, but any cybersecurity ramifications pale in comparison to the status quo. App guidelines have NOT protected mobile users from the biggest threats to their safety. Thanks to a complete lack of control over digital third parties, identity theft, phishing and malware attacks are rampant across all mobile platforms. Until that changes – and the app review process becomes more than a pointless formality – regulations should be the least of our concern.”