Brussels focuses Apple probe on app restrictions

Brussels has narrowed its long-running antitrust probe against Apple, focusing on the way the tech giant restricts apps such as Spotify from telling users about alternative subscription options.

The European Commission on Tuesday said it was now investigating how apps were allegedly prevented from telling iPhone and iPad users of cheaper ways to access music subscriptions outside of the App Store.

The narrowing of the probe means the commission has abandoned a separate charge that accused Apple of forcing developers to use its own in-app payment system.

Spotify has complained for years to regulators in Europe and the US about Apple’s App Store policies.

The music streaming service filed a complaint with European regulators in 2019 claiming Apple was taking a 30 per cent cut of its subscription fees for featuring it in the App Store and denying the streaming service the right to tell its users that other ways of upgrading were available. The commission formally charged Apple with breaking EU law last year.

The move signals a willingness by the commission to pursue antitrust probes even though it has pushed through the Digital Services Act, which aims to curb the power of big tech. The Act will come into force next year.

In a statement on Tuesday, the commission said it “no longer takes a position as to the legality of the in-app payment obligation for the purposes of this antitrust investigation but rather focuses on the contractual restrictions that Apple imposed on app developers which prevent them from informing iPhone and iPad users of alternative music subscription options at lower prices outside of the app and to effectively choose those”.

Brussels’ decision to drop some of its charges against Apple will come as a disappointment to Spotify. Last September, Spotify’s chief executive Daniel Ek told the FT he was personally applying pressure for the four-year old case to move forward.

At the time he accused Apple of being a company “that keeps zigging and zagging to avoid doing anything”, adding that other antitrust watchdogs, including in Japan and the Netherlands, “have come down pretty hard” on Apple over similar issues.

Apple said it was “pleased” the commission had “narrowed its case and is no longer challenging Apple’s right to collect a commission for digital goods and require the use of the In-App Payment systems users trust”.

It added that it would continue to work with Brussels to “respond to their concerns”. “The App Store has helped Spotify become the top music streaming service across Europe and we hope the European Commission will end its pursuit of a complaint that has no merit,” said Apple.

Regulators in Brussels have three open probes into Apple’s alleged anti-competitive practices. The EU is looking into similar charges against Apple when it comes to ebook subscriptions on its App Store and it is also looking into claims that Apple is allegedly blocking rival payment services from accessing its Apple Pay mobile system.


Business Asia
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