Apple's handling of parental control apps draws scrutiny abroad as US ramps up examination of Big Tech

30 August 2019 00:00

As US regulators gear up to examine competition among technology companies, international jurisdictions have identified a potential vulnerability for Apple: parental control apps.

While Apple has recently loosened its restrictions on competitors' parental control apps, the company argues that some restrictions remain necessary to safeguard user privacy. Apple's competitors, however, say that Apple itself isn't burdened by the restrictions, and the company is using the restrictions to disrupt competition.

The Russian Federal Antimonopoly Service is looking into allegations that Apple restricted access to a parental control application from Russia-based Kaspersky Labs in favor of Apple's own product, and two executives of app company Kidslox filed a complaint in April in the European Union similarly alleging that Apple schemed to interrupt competition from the Kidslox screen time app.

Parental controls, through which limits can be set on children's online activities, allow invasive remote control of mobile devices. Apple originally banned such mobile device management, or MDM, in 2018 because it said the feature provided hackers an avenue to acquire sensitive child data such as user location and camera permissions. But in response to complaints from users and app developers, the company reversed its policy.

However, Apple also added stringent data-sharing restrictions set to take effect Sept. 3 and introduced a new annual review process for apps that use MDM.

“These apps were using an enterprise technology that provided them access to kids’ highly sensitive personal data,” Apple said in a statement issued after the company decided to again permit MDM. “We will only approve parental control apps to use MDM after we confirm that the developers have stopped sharing any of this sensitive data to third parties, and they must also commit to this in their privacy policy.”

App developers interviewed by MLex said the changes in policy led to the temporary removal of apps from the App Store and to the removal of useful features, such as the ability to limit a child’s screen time or use of social media.

Suren Ramasubbu, chief executive officer and co-founder of parental control app Mobicip, said his app had used MDM since 2012 and had to be removed from the store for a month after the MDM feature was eliminated. He said after that, his app's revenue declined by almost 40 percent.

Now Mobicip and other apps can reinstate MDM features, but they are barred from sharing data with third parties — meaning the companies can’t use valuable app analytics services provided by companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, as well as smaller firms.

There is one app analytics service still available to developers: Apple’s. The company provides a service to share metrics on app engagement, sales and usage. The analytics are included with an Apple App Development program membership.

Developers, however, say Apple’s metrics pale in comparison to those offered by third-party developers. Google’s Firebase, for example, gives developers more detailed data. While Apple's analytics show the number of crashes, for example, Firebase offers more insight into the causes of crashes, said Justin Payeur, founder and chief executive of parental control app Boomerang.

Payeur said being limited to Apple's analytics will make it much harder for his team to locate bugs in their app and improve the product. Apple is “making it so hard, we’re just going to stop fighting or we’re going to stop bothering with this,” Payeur said.

— No movement yet —

Despite concern abroad and the complaints of app developers, it appears the issue hasn’t yet caught the interest of the US government. The four app developers interviewed by MLex for this article said they had not lodged a complaint in the US, nor had they been contacted by US regulators about the issue.

It is more difficult to show competitive harm in the US than in some other jurisdictions. Under European law, a dominant company can be required to deal with its competitors, a condition that US law permits only under limited circumstances. In the US, a successful monopolization complaint must show that a company has substantial market power and used that power to restrict competition in a way that harms consumers.

Harm to consumers in the US is typically measured in terms of higher prices, but Apple's Parental Control service comes with every iPhone. App developers in the US would have to demonstrate lower product quality or reduced innovation to win an antitrust case — a higher burden than in Europe.

— Other concerns —

Apple faces other competition issues in the US. In June, two app developers filed a suit in a California federal court accusing the app maker of monopolizing the iPhone app market by barring apps sold by other app stores from operating on iPhones. The suit also alleges Apple abuses its market power by charging a supracompetitive 30 percent commission on the sale of paid apps and mandating that all app prices end in 99 cents.

In Europe, music streaming service Spotify filed a formal complaint with EU antitrust officials, arguing that Apple abuses its market power in the App Store to impose unlawful conditions on rivals.

The US Department of Justice recently opened a broad probe of how Big Tech companies treat competitors. US Senator Elizabeth Warren, a candidate in the Democratic presidential nomination, has called for the breakup of Big Tech companies, including Apple.

About 20 state attorneys general have begun an antitrust investigation into the Big Tech companies that is still in its early stages. Google and Facebook are the preliminary focus of the investigation.

Apple may not be getting the same level of attention from regulators as other Big Tech companies, but competitors aren't happy with the iPhone behemoth, and in the current climate, the US government could act to ensure that the company plays fair.

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