Lawmakers are claiming that Apple is using its privacy efforts as a disguise to keep competition at bay on iOS. Recent changes in iOS 13 and iPadOS 13, related to background location tracking for apps, give Apple's apps and services an edge over the competition. Apple claimed that they made the change as a response to developers who were abusing background location data, it has hurt even legitimate developers who rely on always-on location information.
Apple is working on a new location tracking product called AirTags, which would likely rely on background location tracking on iOS. For full functionality, it will need always-on location tracking permissions, which other services can not easily get from customers after iOS 13. This would potentially hurt competitors like Tile, who also have a tracking product. Tile is a product that can be attached to things like keys, to easily track their location via Bluetooth. If their product will be crippled due to iOS updates, at the same time when Apple is expected to launch AirTags, this raises alarms of anti-competitive behavior.
Before iOS 13, apps could ask location permissions from customers in very clear words. Customers could grant an app location data access only when they use it, or always, even if the app is in the background. After iOS 13, customers can allow location data access to apps by selecting the following options:
- Allow while using the app
- Allow Once
- Don't allow
Users have to continue using the app regularly for iOS 13 to ask them again if they want to 'always allow' location data access to the app. Users cannot always go to location settings in privacy and manually switch to 'always allow' either. This is where things are concerning for third-party app developers.
Unfortunately, Apple does not apply the same rules for its own services as apps. As The Washington Post pointed out:
But Apple doesn’t warn customers about its own location tracking. By default, iPhone customers agree to 18 separate location-tracking system services during the setup process, including Apple’s own location-based advertisements.
This means that Apple can introduce new products and services, that users would prefer over competitors, as they would work seamlessly on iOS. In fact, Apple already introduced a new service called 'offline finding' on iOS 13, which does not clearly ask customers for location access. The Washington Post sees that as a major advantage for Apple:
That gives Apple a big advantage over competitors on the App Store. Apple can add new features that utilize location tracking without ever asking its customers for additional permission. In iOS 13, Apple introduced “offline finding,” a service that helps Apple users find lost devices, even if they’re not connected to the Internet in a type of networked Bluetooth crowdsourcing.
Tile already offered a service similar to Apple's 'offline finding', but it does not work as well as Apple's offering, after iOS 13.
The United States Justice Department and House Judiciary Committee are investigating this behavior and meeting with Apple's partners to understand their concerns and how these changes impact them. The Washington Post says that the meetings have focused on Apple's changes in rules in the 'name of privacy'.
House lawmakers have been meeting with some of Apple’s partners to discuss their concerns, according to people who have knowledge of the meetings. These people said that one of the topics discussed was Apple’s practice of making changes to the rules that govern its App Store ecosystem in the name of privacy, while also tying the hands of competitors.
There is no doubt that privacy is of utmost importance and should be once of the guiding principals when user data is involved. But Apple's double standard towards between its own services and competitors is a genuine cause of concern. Apple is a company that fosters innovation from third-party developers on its platforms, therefore, it would benefit them if they modify their rules to be fair to everyone. The company shared a statement with The Washington Post that they are working with developers who have raised concerns for the location access changes. Whether they will actually take steps to undo the anti-competitive changes is yet to be seen.