A new piece of legislation has been proposed with bipartisan support at the U.S. senate. The so-called ‘Open Markets Act’ is intended to facilitate competition and enhance consumer rights. The senators behind the bill describe Apple as ‘gatekeepers’. The terms of the bill would apply not just to Apple and Google, but to any company that operates an App Store with more than 50 million users.
The key points of the bill require that owners of large App Stores allow for third party payment systems. Furthermore, platform owners such as Apple would be required to allow sideloading of apps through alternative stores. The legislation goes further and states that platform owners would need to provide ‘readily accessible’ ways for customers to install third-party apps or stores. Consumers must also be given the option of choosing third-party apps to be their defaults in addition to hiding standard apps.
This legislation will tear down coercive anticompetitive walls in the app economy, giving consumers more choices and smaller startup tech companies a fighting chance. For years, Apple and Google have squashed competitors and kept consumers in the dark–pocketing hefty windfalls while acting as supposedly benevolent gatekeepers of this multi-billion dollar market. I’m proud to partner with Senators Blackburn and Klobuchar in this breakthrough blow against Big Tech bullying. This bipartisan bill will help break these tech giants’ ironclad grip, open the app economy to new competitors, and give mobile users more control over their own devices.Senator Richard Blumenthal
In my view, forcing platform owners to both enable third party payment options on their store in addition to enabling third party App Stores seems extreme. Particularly when considering this final point of the proposed legislation:
Apple would be required to provide developers with access to operating system features such as frameworks, API’s and other types of software tools.
Essentially it means this. Apple would be forced to make free tools for developers, curate and maintain the App Store and all the while taking zero profit should the developer use a third party payment system. I just don’t see how such sweeping legislation can be good for either platform owners or indeed consumers in the long run. Sure the legislation ensures the platform has to be maintained even if the owner of the platform didn’t want to but you can’t regulate innovation. If the platform owner no longer has incentive to deliver true innovation and it can’t extract profit from optional purchases via apps and games it’ll mean only one thing. Hardware will get more expensive. It means customers that don’t buy an awful lot of apps, download games or make in-app purchases very often will have to pay more upfront to buy new hardware. Apple and Google aren’t charities or public services. Asking them to fund their stores while taking no profit is counterintuitive to some of the aims of the bill i.e. more affordable apps for consumers.
The other major concern is privacy and security. The Mac as a platform is of course an open system. But customers can choose if they’d like to close the system or keep it open. This is achieved by enabling Gatekeeper. Gatekeeper prevents third-party software from being installed. The problem with such a system on mobile is this: What happens when that app that work or school, heck even the government need you to install means you have no choice but to disable Gatekeeper? All of a sudden your choice is taken away and the privacy and security model of the iPhone is broken.
The real issue with that is that mobile devices contain far more personal data than your computer. GPS/Glonass/Galileo constantly provide pinpoint accurate location data. Sensors onboard capture all kinds of health data (or the user otherwise inputs this). Mobile devices also contain numerous cameras, a wider array of microphones, light sensors, biometric data such as 3D scans of our faces and fingerprints. And that’s just for starters. As soon as you allow developers to essentially have a free for with zero accountability, all of those types of data become ripe for exploitation.
I think a more balanced approach needs to be taken. Allow developers to choose third party payment options and allow consumers the choice to pick who processes the payment. Consumers that enjoy the privacy and security model offered by iPhone get to continue to enjoy it. Developers get a bigger slice of the pie but are still held accountable to a robust set of frameworks and standards.
It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.
Featured Image: James Yarema via Unsplash