US agency calls Apple, Google App Stores 'harmful'

“It is more important than ever that the market for mobile apps remains competitive," the agency says. "NTIA's recommendations will make the app ecosystem more fair and innovative for everyone."

Apple, IOS, App Store, Mobile, Security, regulation
YunHo Lee

Apple appears to have been given yet another set of reasons to expand its legal team as the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) calls for antitrust action to force Apple and Google to make big changes to their mobile app store business models.

What’s the problem?

NTIA is the principal advisor on telecommunications and Internet policy to the Biden administration. It argues that the way things are run at present may be “harmful,” arguing that Google's and Apple’s “gatekeeper” positions may harm consumers by raising prices and reducing innovation.

Among a raft of criticisms, the agency argues that some restrictions favor some apps over others. "In some areas, such as in-app payments, it is unclear how the current system benefits anyone other than Apple and Google," NTIA says.

While it does concede the existing status quo has provided a range of benefits to app developers and users, the regulators still want to force both ecosystems to open up to greater competition.

The criticism does at least pay some lip service to Apple’s strong arguments concerning security and privacy and how its stores provide both, but on the strength of 150 conversations seems to think those should become a “feature” (see below).

It's about ‘fairness’

Following President Biden’s Wall Street Journal piece in which the president called for a bipartisan approach to reeling in the Big Tech firms and how they use personal data, this is the icing on the cake of criticism from regulators worldwide concerning both companies’ business practices.

Putting some scope around the importance of making good decisions on mobile markets, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson said in a statement: “From finding directions to chatting with loved ones, apps are a critical tool for consumers and an essential part of doing business online.

“It is more important than ever that the market for mobile apps remains competitive. NTIA's recommendations will make the app ecosystem more fair and innovative for everyone."

What NTIA wants

The report urges a number of changes to the way Apple and Google do business:

  • Consumers should be able to select their own default apps, choose different mobile app stores and delete or hide pre-installed apps — very similar to EU demands.
  • App Store operators should not be able to highlight their own apps first or discriminate against those that perform similar functions to the ones they make.
  • They should not be able to insist on developers using in-app payment systems.

But one recommendation seems to have a sting in its tail: “Operators should lift restrictions on alternative ways for consumers to download and install apps,” the agency says. “While still preserving appropriate latitude for privacy and security safeguards, legislative and regulatory measures should prohibit restrictions on sideloading, alternative app stores and web apps.”

What happens when security becomes an optional extra?

I think the NTIA is fantasizing with its next claim that suggests privacy and security should become a competitive feature. “A mobile environment open to more developers and innovations might [italics mine] also foster greater competition amongst apps and app stores, along multiple dimension of quality, including code review, curation, privacy and security,” the agency says.

Might? And might not.

Now, the problem is that in a connected environment, it only takes one ill-informed, misled, or otherwise misguided person to make poor privacy and security choices to leave anyone they know at risk.

Once that person's device is subverted, others in their network will perhaps become more vulnerable — and they will not always know that one person has become a carrier. We've seen this before in the early days of the web, when viruses became commonplace.

This is bound to happen if the NTIA allows security or privacy to become an optional extra.

There must surely be scope for an agreement concerning minimum standards for these stores. On a warring planet, it doesn't seem at all sensible to insist national privacy and security becomes optional.

The momentum of the now-global lattice of investigations concerning Apple's App Store business suggests competitors will eventually get their way and we will soon enjoy a deeply fractured mobile ecosystem, with added security vulnerabilities.

Perhaps in a generation or so the true gatekeepers in this mission, the regulators, will catch up with the consequences of what they are doing.

While I do see some benefit to consumers from this, the cost to personal and enterprise privacy and security of some of these proposals outweighs the opportunity to download casual gaming apps for 50 cents less, even if the developer gets to keep an extra penny on the payment processing.

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Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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