The Justice Department accused Google of illegally protecting its monopoly over search and search advertising in a lawsuit filed on Tuesday, the government’s most significant challenge to a tech company’s market power in a generation and one that could reshape the way consumers interact with the internet. In a much-anticipated complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, the agency accused Google of locking up deals with giant partners like Apple and throttling competition through exclusive business contracts and agreements. While the case seems rushed for political reasons, it at least breathes some form of life into the United States’ dying antitrust laws when it comes to the major technology companies. It’s far too early to tell if anything serious will come of this, as the related court cases and legal maneuvering will take many, many years – and the upcoming US presidential elections could play a role, too. Google, for its part, beats the usual drum all anticompetitive companies accused of antitrust violations beat: we are the best, people choose to use us, there are enough alternatives, our deals are not illegal, others do it too, and so on. These are only the premeditated opening salvos to a very long war, and I’m sure we’ll have tons of fun covering this fight for years to come.
The House Judiciary Committee has released its conclusions on whether Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google are violating antitrust law. Its 449-page report criticizes these companies for buying competitors, preferencing their own services, and holding outsized power over smaller businesses that use their platforms. “Our investigation revealed an alarming pattern of business practices that degrade competition and stifle innovation,” said committee member Val Demings (D-FL). “Competition must reward the best idea, not the biggest corporate account. We will take steps necessary to hold rulebreakers accountable.” The report is scathing when it comes to the major technology companies and their clear pattern of anti-competitive behaviour and antritrust abuse. Although these four corporations differ in important ways, studying their business practices has revealed common problems. First, each platform now serves as a gatekeeper over a key channel of distribution. By controlling access to markets, these giants can pick winners and losers throughout our economy. They not only wield tremendous power, but they also abuse it by charging exorbitant fees, imposing oppressive contract terms, and extracting valuable data from the people and businesses that rely on them. Second, each platform uses its gatekeeper position to maintain its market power. By controlling the infrastructure of the digital age, they have surveilled other businesses to identify potential rivals, and have ultimately bought out, copied, or cut off their competitive threats. And, finally, these firms have abused their role as intermediaries to further entrench and expand their dominance. Whether through self-preferencing, predatory pricing, or exclusionary conduct, the dominant platforms have exploited their power in order to become even more dominant. Apple, Google, Amazong, and Facebook are likened to oil barons and railroad tycoons from the American 19th century, and advises to break them up into separate entities. Countless other safeguards and measures are suggested, too, all to create and maintain a level playing field in the technology industry and sectors adjacent to it. While I have my doubts US Congress possesses the intellectual honesty and, quite frankly, grip on reality required to do anything with this report, they seem like much-needed recommendations that should’ve been implemented yesterday.
Ten years after Oracle first sued Google over the code in the Android platform, the two tech giants are finally facing off in the Supreme Court. Since then, there have been three trials and two appeals. Billions of dollars are at stake; many millions have been likely spent on a parade of seasoned litigators, expert witnesses, and bizarre trial exhibits intended to explain programming to non-technical juries. All this may be coming to an anticlimactic close on Wednesday morning, with a teleconference Supreme Court oral argument in the middle of a pandemic. Google must win this case. Not because Google somehow deserves it, but because Oracle and its CEO are the scum of the earth dead set on destroying the very foundations of programming.
Bloatware and carrier phones: name a more iconic duo. The number of preinstalled apps on some smartphones has grown so much these days that people still come to our forums to flash stock Android builds to get rid of the bloat. Bloatware is often preloaded on smartphones by carriers or even smartphone manufacturers themselves. They are often annoying services you will probably never use but you probably can’t uninstall, either. Since carrier devices are often fairly locked down, most users can’t get rid of these unwanted apps without mucking around with ADB. Thankfully, the European Union has a plan: It wants to force smartphone manufacturers to let users uninstall the bloatware that comes preloaded on these devices, according to the Financial Times. This measure is part of a much broader act aimed at reducing the power of big technology companies, especially when it comes to the use of advertising data and platform owners’ power over companies doing business on said platforms. I hope this gets passed, since using ADB to remove bloatware can get a little tedious.
Facebook has threatened to pack up its toys and go home if European regulators don’t back down and let the social network get its own way. In a court filing in Dublin, Facebook said that a decision by Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) would force the company to pull up stakes and leave the 410 million people who use Facebook and photo-sharing service Instagram in the lurch. The decision Facebook’s referring to is a preliminary order handed down last month to stop the transfer of data about European customers to servers in the U.S., over concerns about U.S. government surveillance of the data. …is this supposed to be a threat? Because it sounds more like a gift to me. Please, Zuck, go home! I think we here in Europe will do just fine without your criminal enterprise.
Epic Games just won a temporary restraining order against Apple — at least in part. Effective immediately, Apple can’t retaliate against the company by terminating the developer account used to support the company’s Unreal Engine. But in the same ruling, Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers decided that Apple will not be required to bring Fortnite — which it had banned after Epic added an in-app payment system in violation of Apple’s rules — back to the App Store. I think this is a fair order. Epic willingly and purposefully broke the agreement it entered into with Apple to elicit a response and strengthen their lawsuit case, and Apple is well within its right to remove Fortnite as a result. However, for Apple to then also block and remove everything else related to Epic is clearly retaliatory and petty, and the judge seemed to have seen right through Apple (and Epic’s) nonsense. Of course, this is technically not part of the actual lawsuit filed by Epic that started all of this – these are the opening salvos in what will be a long, drawn-out fight.
Microsoft said denying Epic access to Apple’s developer tools would “prevent Epic from supporting Unreal Engine on iOS and macOS, and will place Unreal Engine and those game creators that have built, are building, and may build games on it at a substantial disadvantage”. “Apple’s discontinuation of Epic’s ability to develop and support Unreal Engine for iOS or macOS will harm game creators and gamers,” it added. Microsoft uses the Unreal engine for iOS and macOS games, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Microsoft would back Epic. At least – it shouldn’t come as a surprise if you know how the gaming industry works, which Apple people obviously do not.
Apple will terminate Epic’s inclusion in the Apple Developer Program, a membership that’s necessary to distribute apps on iOS devices or use Apple developer tools, if the company does not “cure your breaches” to the agreement within two weeks, according to a letter from Apple that was shared by Epic. Epic won’t be able to notarize Mac apps either, a process that could make installing Epic’s software more difficult or block it altogether. Apple requires that all apps are notarized before they can be run on newer versions of macOS, even if they’re distributed outside the App Store. Epic has filed for a preliminary injunction against Apple, asking the court to stop the company from cutting it off. Epic says it will be “irreparably harmed long before final judgment comes” if it does not obtain the injunction. “Apple’s actions will irreparably damage Epic’s reputation among Fortnite users and be catastrophic for the future of the separate Unreal Engine business,” Epic writes. Epic also asks for Fortnite — with its lowered prices and alternate payment option — to be returned to the App Store. A bully is bad. A self-righteous bully surrounded by an internal and external army of yes-men is a million times worse. I sadly don’t expect much from the United States Congress, but I hope the European Commission is keeping very close tabs on Apple’s abusive anti-consumer behaviour here. And the general reminder: you might’ve paid a grand for your iPhone, but it really isn’t your iPhone. It’s Apple’s, and they, and only they, get to decide how you use it.
Telegram, the messaging app, has become the latest company to file a formal antitrust complaint to the EU over Apple’s App Store. In a complaint to EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager, Telegram, which has more than 400 million users, said Apple must “allow users to have the opportunity of downloading software outside of the App Store.” Allowing applications from outside the App Store is the bare minimum of what our governments must mandate from Apple (and other platform makers with similar restrictions). I will go several steps further: all software and firmware on devices shipping to consumers must be open source. No exceptions. To function in a modern western society, computers – smartphone, desktop, laptop – are required. They have become a hugely important pillar of our society, and yet, our devices are controlled not by society or our governments, but by large corporations who don’t have to answer to anyone. This is unacceptable. Access to vital parts of our society are getting more and more restricted to computers, and this means we should have the right to control them, so we can prevent people being locked out because of opaque App Store rules or foreign government interference. If all these devices are open – open source, down to the firmware – we will never be locked out by anyone. Imagine having to file your taxes, but for some reason Apple decided to not approve the latest update to the government app you’re supposed to use and remove it from the App Store. Is that the future we should want?
During Wednesday’s congressional antitrust hearing, the CEOs of Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook used their opening statements to try and paint themselves—and their companies—as uniquely American success stories with humble origins, heart-warming anecdotes, and impactful lessons for the American people. While these CEOs talked a lot about America and its possibilities, and how their companies and even personal histories embody it, it is undeniable that their actions are undermining what they claim to celebrate. It was sad display.
Facebook is suing EU antitrust regulators for seeking information beyond what is necessary, including highly personal details, for their investigations into the company’s data and marketplace, the U.S. social media group said on Monday. ⁂
Slack says it has filed an anti-competitive complaint against Microsoft with the European Commission. “The complaint details Microsoft’s illegal and anti-competitive practice of abusing its market dominance to extinguish competition in breach of European Union competition law,” says Slack in a statement. Slack alleges that Microsoft has “illegally tied” its Microsoft Teams product to Office and is “force installing it for millions, blocking its removal, and hiding the true cost to enterprise customers.” “Microsoft is reverting to past behavior,” claims David Schellhase, general counsel at Slack. “They created a weak, copycat product and tied it to their dominant Office product, force installing it and blocking its removal, a carbon copy of their illegal behavior during the ‘browser wars.’ Slack is asking the European Commission to take swift action to ensure Microsoft cannot continue to illegally leverage its power from one market to another by bundling or tying products.” It’s what platform vendors do. Google, Apple, Microsoft – they all do this, and it only serves to hurt consumers and competition.
The highest court in Europe has struck down the EU-US Privacy Shield over concerns that the agreement leaves the data of European customers too exposed to US government surveillance. The agreement, which has been in place since 2016, allows companies operating in the EU to transfer data back to the US and over 5,000 companies currently operate under its terms. Good news, of course, but while the focus is often on the US and China, we shouldn’t forget that European countries are also quite, quite adept at mass surveillance.
The EU has enacted new regulations to protect developers operating in the App Store and Play Store from Apple and Google (let’s be real here – that’s who this is aimed at). Platforms will have to provide 30 days notice to publishers before removing content from stores, allowing them time to appeal or make changes to their software. So no immediate and opaque bans (article 4). The regulations (in article 5) will force stores to be more transparent in how their ranking systems work, letting publishers understand how ‘trending’ apps are being chosen for instance. Article 7 follows similar themes, with storefronts having to disclose any ‘differentiated treatment’ it may give one seller of goods over another, which should put paid to any real (or imagined) preferential treatment for larger publishers – or at least make it clear to everyone how and when the playing field isn’t even. The rules also demand access to third party mediation in case of disputes. This seems like a set of reasonable rules that should’ve been in place ages ago.
Microsoft and Zoom have said they will not process data requests made by the Hong Kong authorities while they take stock of a new security law. They follow Facebook, Google, Twitter and the chat app Telegram, which had already announced similar “pauses” in compliance over the past two days. China passed the law on 30 June, criminalising acts that support independence, making it easier to punish protesters. This feels more like a “let’s get some good press in the west while we resume normal operation in aiding the genocidal Chinese regime when people stop caring” than a real principled stand, but with how everybody just rolls over for China, I’ll take any element of resistance – no matter how weak sauce – I can get. It doesn’t get much weaker than “pausing”, though. Apple says it is “assessing” the rules. Oh turns out I was wrong. It does get weaker.
Twitter, Reddit, and Internet Association filed an amicus brief late yesterday in support of a lawsuit filed last year by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the Brennan Center for Justice, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP on behalf of plaintiffs Doc Society and International Documentary Association, challenging rules that require nearly all visa applicants to register their social media handles with the U.S. government and connected policies permitting the retention and dissemination of that information. The brief argues that the social media registration requirement and connected policies “unquestionably chill a vast quantity of speech” and harm the First Amendment rights of their users, particularly those who use pseudonymous handles to discuss political, controversial, or otherwise sensitive issues on the platforms. This has bad idea written all over it, but that has never stopped any government from implementing tech-related policy. This won’t be an issue for average joes around the world – many western countries have visa-free travel to the US anyway through things like the ESTA program – but it will be for people from repressive regimes.
The European Commission has announced plans for new “right to repair” rules that it hopes will cover phones, tablets, and laptops by 2021. If successful, these rules will mean these devices should remain useful for longer before needing to be recycled or ending up in landfills. The plans were introduced as part of a wide-ranging set of product initiatives that also cover textiles, plastics, packaging, and food with the aim of helping the trading bloc become climate neutral by 2050. As well as introducing new “right to repair” rules, the EU also wants products to be more sustainably designed in the first place. Under the new plan, products should be more durable, reusable, upgradeable, and constructed out of more recycled materials. The EU’s hope is to reward manufacturers that achieve these goals. Finally, the EU is also considering introducing a new scheme to let consumers more easily sell or return old phones, tablets, and chargers. Good. One of the most important aspects of these rules is that the EU wants to force companies to provide spare parts to third party repair shops, which is something that’s entirely normal in, for instance, the car industry, but so far hasn’t been implemented in the technology sector yet because tech companies are special because reasons. EU-wide right-to-repair legislation will force companies like Apple and Samsung to take device longevity and repairability seriously, and these benefits will spill over to other parts of the world, such as the US, Canada, and maybe even the UK.
On Tuesday, Sonos sued Google in two federal court systems, seeking financial damages and a ban on the sale of Google’s speakers, smartphones and laptops in the United States. Sonos accused Google of infringing on five of its patents, including technology that lets wireless speakers connect and synchronize with one another. Sonos’s complaints go beyond patents and Google. Its legal action is the culmination of years of growing dependence on both Google and Amazon, which then used their leverage to squeeze the smaller company, Sonos executives said. “Google has been blatantly and knowingly copying our patented technology,” Mr. Spence said in a statement. “Despite our repeated and extensive efforts over the last few years, Google has not shown any willingness to work with us on a mutually beneficial solution. We’re left with no choice but to litigate.” Sonos executives said they decided to sue only Google because they couldn’t risk battling two tech giants in court at once. Yet Mr. Spence and congressional staff members have discussed him soon testifying to the House antitrust subcommittee about his company’s issues with them. I’ve said it many times before – companies like Google and Amazon have simply become too large, too powerful, and too invulnerable, and this is simply yet another example in a long string of examples. Break them up.
iFixit details Apple’s copyright lawsuit against Corellium: Despite a lack of apparent interest in enforcing their copyright to iOS software, in this specific case Apple has decided to exert control over iOS. And they’ve crossed a red line by invoking the most notorious statute in the US copyright act, section 1201. This is the very law that made it illegal for farmers to work on their tractors and for you to fix your refrigerator. It’s the same law that we’ve been whacking away at for years, getting exemptions from the US Copyright Office for fixing, jailbreaking, and performing security research on everything from smartwatches to automobiles. Enter Apple with the latest terrible, awful, no-good application of 1201. Apple claims that in making virtual iPhones for security and development use, Corellium is engaged in “unlawful trafficking of a product used to circumvent security measures in violation of 17 U.S.C. § 1201.” In other words: Corellium sells a way to use iOS that works around the way Apple intended it to work. Apple knows that you can’t use Corellium’s software to create your own knock-off iPhone. But they can claim that Corellium’s software is illegal, and they might technically be right. That’s terrifying. I hope the lawsuit ends with a loss for Apple, but I wouldn’t bet on it,
Google has told its Turkish business partners it will not be able to work with them on new Android phones to be released in Turkey, after the Turkish competition board ruled that changes Google made to its contracts were not acceptable. Totalitarian governments are increasingly using their subjects’ smartphones as tools for exerting their totalitarian control. Don’t be surprised if the Turkish government will soon mandate Turkish-made software on smartphones sold in the country, just like Russia mandated not too long ago.