The Commerce Department calls Google and Apple “gatekeepers” for mobile apps

Biden administration officials have targeted the couple, describing them as “gatekeepers” of the mobile apps that consumers and businesses rely on in a new report. The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) that users “should have more control over their devices,” arguing that more legislation is likely needed to increase competition in the app ecosystem. The agency also claims that “the current ecosystem does not offer a level playing field”.

In a report titled “Competition in the Mobile App Ecosystem” (), the NTIA claims to have identified two key policy issues that stand in the way of a more competitive app ecosystem. First, it says users “largely” can’t get apps outside of the app store model controlled by Google and Apple. The report notes that this is not an option that is widely available to most iOS users, and that alternative app stores such as Amazon’s Appstore and Samsung’s Galaxy Store “are not currently viable enough options to create robust competition.” .

According to NTIA, the second problem is that Apple and Google impose technical barriers that can make it difficult for developers to compete. This can include factors such as restrictions on how apps work and app funneling through “slow and opaque review processes,” the report said.

The agency found that while the current mobile app ecosystem offers some benefits, particularly in terms of security measures, the downsides outweighed the benefits. It added that it’s still possible to bolster privacy and security in a more competitive market. To get to this point, the NTIA suggests that several changes are required.

First, it says, users should have more control over what they do with their devices, including the option to set their own apps as default (something that’s already possible on Android and iOS to some extent), a way pre-installed apps and the ability to use third-party app stores. The NTIA argues that app store operators should not prioritize their own apps in search results as well.

In addition, measures should be taken to prevent restrictions on sideloads, web apps and other app stores “while still maintaining a reasonable margin for privacy and security safeguards,” the agency said. In addition, it claimed that “restrictions on in-app purchase options should be addressed” by preventing app store operators from forcing developers to use their own payment systems. Google was pro-specific Android apps, while Apple last year began allowing certain app makers to manage payments and accounts.

“We appreciate that the report recognizes the importance of user privacy, data security and ease of use,” an Apple spokesman told Engadget in a statement. “Nevertheless, we respectfully disagree with a number of the report’s conclusions, which ignore our investments in innovation, privacy and security – all of which contribute to why users love iPhone and level the playing field for small developers to create a safe and trusted platform.”

In a filing with the NTIA, Apple said it “competes with other products that don’t offer the same level of protection and instead let customers load unverified code onto their devices – which independent studies show leads to more malware and less privacy.” The company also claimed that if its “security and privacy rules were overridden, the result would be less competition and less choice for consumers”.

Engadget has reached out to Google for comment.

The NTIA report comes amid a White House initiative to increase competition in the technology industry. “My vision for our economy is one where everyone — small and medium-sized businesses, corner shops, entrepreneurs — can compete on an equal footing with the largest corporations,” President Joe Biden said in one Wall Street Journal op ed.

There have been attempts in Congress to increase competition in the mobile app ecosystem. The proposed bill failed to pass at the last session, despite bipartisan support. Apple and Google should have allowed developers to use third-party app stores and payment systems.

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