Aussie watchdog unhappy with Apple and Google app stores

Australia's Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has been waging war on big tech in recent months, helping to draft controversial new laws that want to force internet giants like Google and Facebook to pay local news organisations for the right to link to their articles – and its next big-tech targets appear to be the iOS and Android app stores. 

In a new statement released today, the Australian watchdog claims that both Apple and Google have too much power when it comes to distributing apps to the public, and it wants strong measures to be taken to curtail their influence.

The post comes off the back of the ACCC's interim Digital platform services inquiry report, which takes a deep look at Apple's App Store and Google's Play Store as the primary means for Australians to purchase and access digital services – namely, apps for smartphones and tablets.

ACCC chairman Rod Simms states that “app developers should have more information about how their apps are made discoverable to consumers and that consumers should have the ability to change or remove any pre-installed or default apps." 

To further allow for fair competition between third-party developers and the two tech giants themselves, Sims proposes that "Apple and Google should also be prevented from using information collected about third-party apps to advantage their own competing apps.”

If the Commission is able to institute policy changes within the country, it could mean that Aussies would be able to see a better, unbiased representation of their options when searching for a music app within Apple's App Store, for example.

It would also mean that any pre-installed programs (Google Play Movies & TV, or Apple's Mail app for instance) would be able to be readily removed from a user's device and be replaceable with a third-party alternative. 

Currently, many apps such as these can never be fully uninstalled from mobile devices, requiring the user to have both the original and their preferred apps installed at once.

Giants in control

As has been the case with the ongoing dispute between Spotify and Apple, the ACCC is also concerned about how these major app storefronts utilise their own payment methods, forcing other app developers to incorporate Apple or Google's in-app purchase and subscription structure and the fees that come with it.

One proposed solution put forward by the ACCC is to allow third-party app developers to suggest alternative payment methods within their apps, combined with marketing that appears on the App Store or Play Store – something app makers are currently not allowed to do.

This could result in consumers seeing slightly more affordable pricing in certain situations where third-party developers have had to raise their pricing to accommodate Apple or Google's storefront fees.

The ACCC does accept the mutual benefits of the tech giants' unified storefronts, acknowledging that these "gateways between consumers and app developers [...] provide considerable benefits to both groups," but with the qualifier that "there are significant issues with how this market is operating".

This proposal is currently just part of an interim report in the ACCC's five-year Digital Platform Services inquiry, which wraps up in 2025. Given that timeline, we may be a while off seeing any concrete changes result from the report (let alone policy being enacted) but the watchdog is hoping Apple and Google will address these issues without intervention.

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