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Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the new Extra Crunch series where we’ll help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps — including everything from the OS’s to the apps that run upon them, as well as the money that flows through it all.

The app industry in 2018 saw 194 billion downloads and over $ 100 in consumer spending. Beyond that, the business of user acquisition and advertising generates even more money. And all because we’re spending more time on our phones than we do watching TV.

This week, the news was centered on the app stores’ ability to censor, the censorship in apps, and also how the antritrust investigations are forcing companies to open up access more to third parties.

Headlines

Third-party iOS apps will get to tap into Siri

According to Bloomberg and confirmed elsewhere, Apple will allow third-party messaging and phone apps to work better with the Siri digital assistant. That means, if you regularly use WhatsApp to message friends, Siri will launch that app instead of iMessage. Currently, you have to say the name of the app you want to invoke. The update is largely about Apple’s attempt to demonstrate anti-competitive behavior, in light of increased regulatory scrutiny and antitrust claims. But the change will also be a huge win for consumers as their iPhones will become more personalized to them.


TechCrunch

Fifty attorneys general are pushing forward with an antitrust investigation against Google, led by the Texas state Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In an announcement on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building, Paxton and a gathering of attorneys general said that the focus of the investigation would be on Google’s advertising practices, but that other points of inquiry could be included in the investigation.

The investigation into Google comes as big technology companies find themselves increasingly under the regulatory microscope for everything from anticompetitive business practices to violations of users’ privacy and security, to accusations of political bias.

Last week, the New York State Attorney General launched an investigation into Facebook.

Action from the states follows movement from the federal government which is investigating just about every major technology company including Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook.

This story is developing.


TechCrunch

Make way for another antitrust investigation into big tech. Step forward Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS), which has opened an official probe of Apple — following a complaint lodged in March by security company Kaspersky Labs.

Kaspersky’s complaint to FAS followed a change in Apple’s policy towards a parental control app it offers, called Kaspersky Safe Kids. Discussing the complaint in a blog post the security firm says Apple contacted it in 2017 to inform it that the use of configuration profiles is against App Store policy, even though the app had been on Apple’s store for nearly three years without it raising any objections. 

Apple told Kaspersky to remove configuration profiles from the app — which it says would require it to remove two key features that makes it useful to parents: Namely, app control and Safari browser blocking.

It also points out that the timing of Apple’s objection followed Apple announcing its Screen Time feature, in iOS 12 — which allows iOS users to monitor the amount of time they spend using certain apps or on certain websites and set time restrictions. Kaspersky argues Screen Time is “essentially Apple’s own app for parental control” — hence raising concerns about the potential for Apple to exert unfair market power over the store it also operates by restricting competition.

We’ve reached out to Apple for comment on the FAS investigation. The company referred Reuters to a statement it made in April about its policy towards parental control apps, following other complaints.

In the statement Apple says it removed several such apps from the App Store because they “put users’ privacy and security at risk” — calling out the use of what it described as “a highly invasive technology called Mobile Device Management” (MDM).

But Kaspersky claims its app does not, and never did, use MDM.

Following complaints and some press attention to Apple’s parental control apps crackdown), the company appears to have softened its stance on MDM for this specific use-case — updating the App Store Review Guidelines’ to allow using MDM for parental controls in limited cases.

Kaspersky also says that the Apple Developer Enterprise Program License Agreement “clarifies that the use of MDM-profiles and configuration profiles in applications for home users is only possible with the explicit written consent of Apple”.

However it argues that Apple’s updated rules and restrictions still “do not provide clear criteria allowing the usage of these profiles, as well as information on meeting the criteria, which is needed for obtaining written consent from Apple to use them”. Hence it’s not willing to drop its complaint yet.

It says it’s also continuing to prepare to file an antitrust complaint over the same issue in Europe — where a separate competition-related complaint was recently filed against Apple by the music service Spotify.

Kaspersky says now that only official written confirmation from Apple — of “the applicability of the new p.5.5. “App Store Review Guidelines” for Kaspersky Safe Kids for iOS” — will stay its complaint.

Russia’s FAS has shown itself to be relatively alacritous at handling big tech antitrust complaints — most notably slapping Google with an order against bundling its services with Android back in 2015, a few months after local search giant Yandex had filed a complaint.

It took the European Union’s competition regulator several more years before arriving at a similar conclusion vis-a-vis Google’s competition-blocking Android bundling.


TechCrunch

Tomorrow, representatives from Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple will testify before Congress in the second hearing organized as part of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust investigation into the world’s largest technology companies.

While the first hearing focused on the ways technology companies busted the traditional news business, this one promises to look at the “impact of market power of online platforms on innovation and entrepreneurship,” according to the committee.

Unlike the previous hearing, which featured representatives from media outlets and industry trade organizations attacking or defending the ways in which online advertising had gutted the news business, this latest outing led by Rhode Island Democratic Rep. David Cicilline will have actual tech company execs on hand to answer congressional queries.

One section of the testimony will feature Google’s economic policy head, Adam Cohen; Amazon’s associate general counsel, Nate Sutton; Facebook’s global head of policy, Matt Perault; and Kyle Andeer, Apple’s chief compliance officer.

Others expected to appear include Tim Wu, the Columbia Law professor who’s been an outspoken critic of technology consolidation and an advocate for more stringent antitrust oversight of tech companies, and Maureen Ohlhausen, a partner at Baker Botts and the former acting chairman of the Federal Trade Commission in charge of its antitrust actions.

Wu and his views sort of encapsulate much of the thinking from critics of these companies’ current dominance in the market.

“I would love, in fact, if a serious Facebook challenger took down Facebook, and I would stop calling for any antitrust action. It’s just when you become suspicious that the barriers have gotten strong enough that a company could survive, then maybe we need to have antitrust law loosened up, get things moving, and provide for the market cycle to take its place. Now eventually it will happen, but we can’t wait for 50 years,” Wu told the American Enterprise Institute in an interview earlier this year.

“It’s also possible that history would suggest that a company like Facebook, and perhaps Amazon, will soon try to get government on their side to defend themselves against competition. I don’t know what it will look like, but maybe Facebook agrees to some kind of privacy law, which for some reason is very hard for new entrants to adhere to. Amazon may try and instantiate itself as basically the national e-commerce monopolist, kind of like a Bell-regulated monopoly. That’s a next natural step, especially as a big star, to become less competitive. And so before that happens, I think we give the antitrust law its turn.”

Policy watchers can expect market criticisms of the big technology platforms to come from a few different angles (each company has different, slightly overlapping, issues that policymakers find worrisome).

For Alphabet, criticism stems primarily from the company’s dominance in online search and the ad networks it controls through its ownership of DoubleClick and AdMob (along with its ownership of YouTube’s wildly popular video platform). At Amazon, it’s the ways in which Jeff Bezos’e-commerce behemoth hoovers up sales information  and uses it to inform pricing and potentially anticompetitive practices that stymie the development of new e-commerce players by promoting its own brands and products.

For Facebook, it’s the dominance of the company’s social media platforms (including Instagram and the messaging service WhatsApp) that are a cause for concern — as is its unwillingness to open its social graph for other startups. The company also elicits howls from consumer advocates for its abysmal ability to protect user privacy and data.

Finally, Apple’s control over the entire ecosystem it pitches to consumers — and the pricing policies it enforces that some critics have called extortive are cause for concern among the political class.

These competitive concerns also play out against the outsized ambitions that these technology companies have in other areas. Facebook is trying to make an end run around the existing global financial system through the launch of its Libra cryptocurrency; Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook all have designs to dominate the development of artificial intelligence in open markets; and then there’s the work these companies are conducting in areas as diverse as healthcare, mobility technologies and even space travel and high-speed networking.

With so many interests in so many areas and core businesses generating so much money, it’s easy to conflate a broader unease with these companies’ ambitions and the core anti-competitive arguments that are worthy of discussion.

For this hearing — and indeed the Congressional investigation to be successful — the focus should be less on the global ambitions of these technology companies and more on the practices they’ve enacted to stifle competition.


TechCrunch

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