Biden administration officials have taken aim at Apple and Google in a new report, describing the pair as “gatekeepers” of the mobile apps that consumers and businesses rely on. The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) states that users “should have more control over their devices” and argues that more legislation is probably needed to bolster competition in the app ecosystem. The agency also claims that "the current ecosystem is not a level playing field."
In a report titled “Competition in the Mobile App Ecosystem” (PDF), the NTIA says it pinpointed two major policy issues that are getting in the way of a more competitive app ecosystem. First, it says that users "largely" can't get apps outside of the Google and Apple-controlled app store model. The report notes that sideloading is not an option broadly available to most iOS users and that alternative app stores such as Amazon Appstore and Samsung’s Galaxy Store "are not currently sufficiently viable options to create robust competition."
The NTIA says the second issue it identified is that Apple and Google impose technical barriers that can make it more difficult for developers to compete. These can include factors such as limits on how apps function and funneling apps through "slow and opaque review processes," the report says.
The agency determined that, while there are some benefits to the current mobile app ecosystem, particularly when it comes to security measures, the cons outweighed the pros. It added that it's still possible to shore up privacy and security in a more competitive marketplace. To get to that point, the NTIA suggests that several changes are required.
First, it says, users should have more control over what they do with their devices, including the option to set their own apps as defaults (something that's already possible on Android and iOS to some degree), a way to hide or remove pre-installed apps and the ability to use third-party app stores. The NTIA argues that operators of app stores shouldn't give their own apps preferential treatment in search results as well.
In addition, there should be measures in place to prevent limits on sideloading, web apps and other app stores "while still preserving appropriate latitude for privacy and security safeguards," the agency said. Moreover, it claimed that "limits on in-app purchasing options should be addressed" by preventing app store operators from forcing developers to use their own payment systems. Google has been testing third-party billing options for certain Android apps, while Apple last year started allowing certain app makers to direct users to their websites to manage payments and accounts.
"We appreciate the report acknowledges the importance of user privacy, data security and user convenience," an Apple spokesperson told Engadget in a statement. "Nevertheless, we respectfully disagree with a number of conclusions reached in the report, which ignore the investments we make in innovation, privacy and security — all of which contribute to why users love iPhone and create a level playing field for small developers to compete on a safe and trusted platform.”
In a filing with the NTIA, Apple said it "competes with other products that do not offer the same level of protection and instead choose to let customers load unvetted code onto their devices — which independent studies show leads to more malware and less privacy." The company also claimed that if its "security and privacy protections were regulated out of existence, the result would thus be less competition and less consumer choice."
Engadget has contacted Google for comment.
The NTIA report comes amid a drive from the White House to bolster competition in the tech industry. "My vision for our economy is one in which everyone — small and midsized businesses, mom-and-pop shops, entrepreneurs — can compete on a level playing field with the biggest companies," President Joe Biden wrote last month in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
There have been attempts in Congress to increase competition in the mobile app ecosystem. Proposed legislation called the Open App Markets Act failed to pass in the last session despite gaining bipartisan support. It would have required Apple and Google to let developers use third-party app stores and payment systems.