Now app stores are in Biden's sights

The US government is calling for changes to the way Apple and Google host and promote apps.

Nick Wood

February 2, 2023

4 Min Read
Now app stores are in Biden's sights

The US government is calling for changes to the way Apple and Google host and promote apps.

A report published on Wednesday by the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) claims that the current mobile app store model is harmful to consumers and developers.

It said Apple and Google, which are pretty much the only two games in town when it comes to app stores, act as gatekeepers, giving them the power to potentially harm consumers by raising prices and thwarting innovation.

“Apps are a critical tool for consumers and an essential part of doing business online,” said Alan Davidson, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, and NTIA administrator, in a statement. “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.”

The NTIA recommends consumers should have more control over default apps, be able to use alternative app stores, and delete and hide pre-installed apps. It also wants to prevent Apple and Google from favouring their own apps in search results, and from unfairly discriminating against rival offerings.

In addition, the NTIA also wants to promote alternative methods of downloading apps, including not just rival app stores but also side-loading. It also wants to ban Apple and Google from forcing developers to use their proprietary in-app payment systems.

“New legislation and additional antitrust enforcement actions are likely necessary to boost competition in the app ecosystem,” the NTIA said. “The measures identified in the report will help open the app ecosystem to greater competition, innovation and potential benefits for users and developers.”

It is easy to guess how this news will have been received by Google and Apple. They will argue that they helped the mobile app ecosystem to flourish in the first place, and as the proprietors of the two biggest mobile operating systems in the world, they put developers on the world stage. They would also argue that their role of gatekeeper not only functions as quality control, but also as a malware filter.

Such is the price of success though. In lieu of a credible challenger in the OS market to keep Apple and Google in check, the US government has decided to take on that role instead.

Indeed, this week’s announcement represents an escalation of the Biden administration’s multi-pronged effort at reining in big tech in general.

Earlier in January, The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Biden himself, in which he attacked big tech’s track record on collecting, sharing and monetising personal data. Without naming names, he also criticised companies for being anticompetitive and, like those aforementioned app stores, keeping the door firmly closed on smaller rivals. Biden also took aim at Section 230, the legislation that protects Internet platforms from legal responsibility for the content uploaded to their sites.

Exactly what Biden wants to do with Section 230 has yet to be revealed. It needs to be handled delicately because any attempt at reform will carry with it the unmistakeable whiff of censorship. This is when opinion pieces in the Journal come in handy. They act like a weather balloon, enabling the government to see which way the wind is blowing before it attempts to direct policy in a particular direction.

Biden and his advisors clearly feel confident that now is the time to follow up with more concrete action. In addition to this week’s NTIA announcement, the Justice Department (DoJ) late last month sued Google for alleged breaches of US antitrust laws.

The search giant is accused of monopolising digital advertising technologies by acquiring potential competitors. It also says Google has abused its dominant position to force websites and advertisers to use its products, thereby further reinforcing its position.

“No matter the industry and no matter the company, the Justice Department will vigorously enforce our antitrust laws to protect consumers, safeguard competition, and ensure economic fairness and opportunity for all,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland.

With this week’s NTIA announcement, the White House has opened up yet another front in its campaign to bring big tech to heel.


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About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.

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