Members of Congress Perceive Apple’s Privacy Moves as Anti-Competitive

Privacy sells products, as consumers desire protection from invasive surveillance. Apple’s attempts at privacy, however, are starting to raise concerns about anti-competitive behavior.

By Chand Bellur

November 26, 2019 at 4:42p.m. PDT

Congress Investigates Apple’s Location Services Update

iOS 13 introduces a new feature for apps relying on background location services. Apple’s newest mobile operating system periodically pops up messages informing users that an app is using location services in the background. This warning only applies to third-party apps. Eighteen built-in iOS apps, developed by Apple, use location services in the background. Users are not notified when Apple’s own apps use background location services.

Apple allows third-party developers to display a message informing users as to why location services are used in the background. Since these messages are only displayed for third-party apps, and not Apple’s built-in apps, some may infer that Apple does not poll their location in the background. This gives Apple’s built-in apps an edge, as users perceive that they protect privacy better than third-party alternatives.

Device makers such as Tile, who create a small tracking device, have complained to Apple, lawmakers and the public at large. They allege that Apple is using privacy in an anti-competitive way.

Do as We Say, Not as We Do

The main problem with Apple’s privacy move is that it doesn’t apply to their own apps. Users cannot opt-in to background location services with third-party apps, such as Tile. Instead, they are repeatedly reminded that location services are being used in the background. One mistaken tap can render Tile useless, and frustrated users will choose Apple’s alternative. (Apple is rumored to be releasing a copycat Tile product called AirTag.)

This particular feature in iOS 13 has raised eyebrows in Congress. Lawmakers are looking to codify electronic privacy so companies like Apple can’t make up their own, anti-competitive rules.

Given the state of our government, which is easily captured by lobbyists and large corporations, don’t expect change anytime soon. The dominant philosophy is to take campaign donations, look the other way and blame others when the unfortunate outcome occurs.

Lawmakers have done little to curb abuse from large tech corporations. Compared to the EU, which has gone too far, our lawmakers pave the way for tech companies to abuse consumers.

App Store Monopoly is 800 Pound Gorilla

With all of the concern over the new iOS 13 privacy “feature”, many forget that the App Store itself is a monopoly. Apple can reject apps that compete with their own products. They often steal features from third-party developers. The App Store is a huge competitive advantage for Apple, but a detriment to consumers and third-party developers alike.

Apple has a rather weak excuse for their App Store monopoly. They claim that the App Store protects users from malicious apps. macOS, however, allows users to side load apps from the web. Major software developers, such as Ableton, do not sell their popular software in the macOS App Store. After all, they don’t want to give up one-third of their revenues just to have Apple host a download in the App Store. It’s a massive rip-off for established software companies.

With an increasingly unreasonable position, Apple will likely take its monopolistic abuse too far. This may see the demise of the App Store, along with their location services warning, which serve to tarnish trustworthy software.

Apple’s abuses will stop only if people hold their lawmakers accountable. Most consumers don’t care. If they get a scary message when using Tile, some may end up using Apple’s copycat product. Most people don’t even care about genocide. Why would they care about anti-competitive behavior? As long as they can post a brave mountaineering or yoga photo on Instagram or their dating profile, why bother? Their phone does the simple things it needs to do — propagate narcissism and gather misleading information from social media.

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