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Meta takes aim at Apple’s ‘self-serving tactics’ in Dept of Commerce filing


By Kendra Clark | Senior Reporter

May 26, 2022 | 6 min read

Meta has filed a submission with the US Department of Commerce that accuses Apple of unfairly inhibiting marketplace competition by employing “self-serving tactics.” The social media giant has a bone to pick over Apple’s privacy-focused, advertising-hampering iOS changes as well as its gaming app restrictions.

US Department of Commerce building

In a new filing with the US Department of Commerce, Meta takes aim at Apple's mobile app policies / Adobe Stock

When Apple introduced a slew of new user privacy-focused updates to its mobile operating system last year — the most impactful of which inhibits apps from tracking individual users’ behavior across the web and other apps without their explicit consent — mobile publishers were quick to express indignation. Meta, Facebook, at the time, was among the most outspoken. In response to the iOS changes, the company rolled out notices to its app users arguing that opting into tracking is a crucial way to receive personalized ads, keep Facebook and Instagram free of charge and support small businesses who rely on advertising revenue.

Now, Meta is going further to take down Apple’s grip on the mobile ecosystem. The company has filed a submission with a branch of the US Department of Commerce known as the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) in response to a request for comment on competition in the mobile app space. The filings will be evaluated as part of a Department of Commerce report on the mobile app ecosystem to be submitted to the White House Competition Council. The Council was established last year by the Biden administration as part of its executive order on evaluating marketplace competition across industries. In essence, the filings may inform the president’s policy stance on competition and antitrust issues.

Meta new raises the stakes against an old foe

If nothing else, Meta’s submission is a fervent condemnation of Apple’s mobile policies. “Apple’s self-serving tactics prevent consumers from realizing the innovation and benefits of a dynamic and otherwise well-functioning mobile app ecosystem,” the company writes in the filing.

The filing raises the stakes on an increasingly tense relationship between the two heavyweights.

Meta claims that in particular, the aforementioned framework for requiring user opt-in for cross-app tracking, known as AppTrackingTransparency (ATT), unfairly benefits Apple. “Over the long term, Apple stands to benefit as ATT raises the costs to consumers of switching from Apple to non-Apple mobile devices. By making ad-based monetization less attractive than it would otherwise be, ATT has already prompted some app developers to shift from ad-based to fee-based monetization.” The filing notes that Apple collects between 15 and 30% commission on this type of monetization, and argues that ATT has helped propel Apple’s ad business while it has “hobbled” competitors..

The makes clear that Meta has suffered the brunt of the impact: "Despite having some of the most popular apps in the world, Meta’s ability to innovate on its products and services and even reach its customers is determined, and in some cases, significantly limited, by the most popular mobile operating systems, such as Apple’s iOS.”

It is worth noting that reports in December claimed that Apple was taking a lax approach to enforcing ATT for major players including Meta and Snap.

What else the filing claims

But Meta’s damning assessment of ATT and Apple’s ad-crippling iOS updates is just one of three areas of critique outlined in the filing. Meta also takes aim at Apple’s app store restrictions on third-party web applications, arguing that independent developers are harmed by Apple’s approach. “Apple’s restrictions on independent web browsers prevent web apps from emerging as viable, operating system-agnostic alternatives to… apps developed for a specific operating system.”

Plus, the filing also scrutinizes Apple’s app store restrictions on gaming apps that utilize non-Apple-native software — a grievance Meta has been airing for some time. In 2020, the social titan tried to publish its iOS Facebook Gaming app, which Apple rejected on the premises that the technology violated its app store policies. The app was created to feature gaming livestreaming à la Twitch, in addition to games that could be played via cloud streaming or HTML5 frameworks rather than requiring a download. Apple claimed these models went against its cloud gaming policies. In light of this and other similar disputes, Apple decided to loosen some such restrictions, but has kept its rules concerning both independent apps and gaming technology fairly tight. Meta eventually leveled with Apple and created a version of the app that Apple agreed to offer through its app store, but in the time since has promoted a browser-based version of the app that more closely resembles its initial iteration.

In the NTIA filing, Meta bemoans Apple’s gaming app restrictions on the premise that they prevent developers from publishing and monetizing their apps and also hamper system switchover, “locking” consumers into the closed iOS ecosystem. “Restrictions that Apple imposes on cross-platform gaming, web-based, and ad-supported apps prevent them from lowering barriers to switching and lock consumers into iOS devices," the document reads. “Apple’s policies restricting cloud games and HTML5-based games have prevented Meta from introducing features that would enable developers to distribute and monetize, and users of iOS devices to enjoy, a variety of games.”

The filing asserts that Apple’s mobile app policies at large serve to protect the iPhone maker’s advantage in the mobile app ecosystem and raise the barriers on switching to Android. In the document’s conclusion, Meta writes: “Taken together, Apple’s restrictions on third-party web browsers, its restrictions on third-party gaming apps, and its ATT framework severely limit developers’ ability to create and consumers’ ability to enjoy cross-platform apps that could lower barriers to switching from Apple to Android and other devices.”

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