US Bill introduced to curb 'big tech bullying' in the app store space

The Open App Markets Act is aiming to tear down coercive anticompetitive walls in the app economy, with three US senators hoping it will set fair, clear, and enforceable rules that protect competition and strengthen consumer protections.

Google Play and Apple App Store

Image: Getty Images

Three United States senators have introduced a Bill they have labelled as a breakthrough blow against "big tech bullying".

The Open App Markets Act, introduced by Democrats Richard Blumenthal and Amy Klobuchar, and Republican Marsha Blackburn, specifically targets Apple and Google and their respective app stores.

The senators said the Bill aims to set fair, clear, and enforceable rules to protect competition and strengthen consumer protections within the app market.

In a statement, the trio said Apple and Google have gatekeeper control of the two dominant mobile operating systems. They said their respective app stores allow them to exclusively dictate the terms of the app market, inhibiting competition and restricting consumer choice. 

Blumenthal expects the legislation will "tear down" coercive anticompetitive walls in the app economy, giving consumers more choices and offering smaller startups a fighting chance.

"For years, Apple and Google have squashed competitors and kept consumers in the dark -- pocketing hefty windfalls while acting as supposedly benevolent gatekeepers of this multibillion-dollar market," he said, referring to the Bill as a "breakthrough blow against big tech bullying".

"This bipartisan Bill will help break these tech giants' ironclad grip, open the app economy to new competitors, and give mobile users more control over their own devices."  

The move follows testimony provided during the Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee probe that highlighted the alleged gatekeeper control the two major players have in stifling competition in the app store market.

See also: New antitrust legislation targets Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google

The new Bill, the senators said, would protect developers' rights to tell consumers about lower prices and offer competitive pricing; protect sideloading of apps; open up competitive avenues for startup apps, third party app stores, and payment services; make it possible for developers to offer new experiences that take advantage of consumer device features; give consumers more control over their devices; prevent app stores from disadvantaging developers; and set safeguards to continue to protect privacy, security, and safety of consumers.

"Apple and Google want to prevent developers and consumers from using third-party app stores that would threaten their bottom line," Blackburn added. "Their anticompetitive conduct is a direct affront to a free and fair marketplace. Senator Blumenthal, Klobuchar, and I are committed to ensuring US consumers and small businesses are not punished by Big Tech dominance."

Klobuchar added that competition was critical for protecting small businesses and consumers, spurring innovation, and promoting economic equity.

"But as mobile technologies have become essential to our daily lives, it has become clear that a few gatekeepers control the app marketplace, wielding incredible power over which apps consumers can access. This raises serious competition concerns," she said. 

"By establishing new rules for app stores, this legislation levels the playing field and is an important step forward in ensuring an innovative and competitive app marketplace."

Lawmakers in the United Kingdom and Australia are among the other jurisdictions also probing the alleged anticompetitive practices of the two major players, but both Apple and Google have respectively denied the claims their app store practices stifle competition.

Apple rejected the characterisation of the App Store being the most dominant app marketplace, telling an Australian watchdog that other options existed for iOS users, such as going to a website. It believes that there is a healthy, competitive market.

Meanwhile, Google said previously that the launch of Android, as the "first truly open and comprehensive mobile platform", disrupted and opened up the "stagnant mobile industry" by lowering barriers to entry and expansion and creating choice at every platform level.

"We built Android to create more choices in mobile technology. Today, anyone, including our competitors, can customise and build devices with the Android operating system -- for free," Google senior director of public policy Wilson White added last month.

Following the announcement of the Bill, Epic Games lauded the proposed outlawing of certain contractual obligations that app developers are forced to accept from major app stores, saying the Bill targets the issues at the core of its case.

"Apple and Google's anticompetitive app store conduct is in clear violation of existing antitrust law, which is why Epic brought litigation against them," Epic Games VP of public policy Corie Wright said.

"The introduction of this Bill is an important milestone in the continued fight for fairer digital platforms. Its passage would enable developers to seek injunctions for violations of the Act, which will help level the playing field for small companies standing up to monopolists who are abusing their market power.

"This will make it easier for developers of all sizes to challenge these harmful practices and seek relief from retaliation, be it during litigation or simply because they dared speak up."

Epic Games has been embroiled in a legal stoush with both Apple and Google, with allegations of competition restrictions in payment processing and app distribution headlining the claims.

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