Thursday, September 24, 2020

Political clout of newly founded Coalition for App Fairness will depend on more app firms joining Epic, Spotify, Match Group (Tinder), others

Through a Wall Street Journal article (behind paywall) I just became aware of the announcement of the newly created Coalition for App Fairness (CAF). Its Twitter handle is @appfairness.

The primary location, as per the website and the Twitter profile, is Washington, DC, but the press release states two locations: "BRUSSELS and WASHINGTON D.C." This means the CAF seeks to influence not only the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice and the Epic v. Apple and Epic v. Google lawsuits in the Northern District of California, where an Epic v. Apple preliminary injunction hearing will be held on Monday (September 28, 2020), but also the ongoing investigation of Apple's App store terms by the European Commission's Directorate-General for Competition (DG COMP).

The EU investigation was instigated by Spotify, which has been running a "Time to Play Fair" website for a while, with no signs of others throwing their weight behind Spotify's cause. It appears that the "AppRising" (as some call it) of app firms against Apple's App Store and Google's Play Store terms has some momentum now as a result of Epic's aggressive action against Apple. Epic prepared a multi-level campaign against Apple, initially sneaking a Trojan horse-style payment system past Apple's App Store review only to activate it via the cloud after emailing down the gauntlet to Apple's leadership at an ungodly hour, provoking the removal of the non-compliant version of Fortnite from the App Store, doing the same with respect to Google's Android app store, and filing complaints of approximately 60 pages against either company and publishing a "Nineteen Eighty Fortnite" campaign video. Epic's legal team is led by former U.S. antitrust chief Christine Varney and former federal judge Katherine Forrest, both of the Cravath firm, which many of my contacts in the legal community profoundly admire.

Spotify was quick to publicly welcome Epic's private antitrust lawsuits--and Tim Sweeney, the outspoken CEO of Epic Games who had criticized Apple's App Store terms on Twitter long before bringing suit, said shortly after the filings that he was working on the creation of a broadbased coalition of companies.

Here's an overview of the founding members of the Coalition for App Fairness, in alphabetical order:

The diversity of those companies and their interests may appear to be a strength, but it will presumably be a challenge for them to agree on anything other than the benefits to them of reducing Apple's and Google's app distribution fees. That's because their business models are so different. Spotify, for instance, is concerned with subscription revenues, while Epic Games sells virtual items through in-app purchasing.

In the short term, the CAF's activities may be more focused on Apple, but as the list of founding members shows, some longstanding Google foes are on board as well.

How influential this new group is going to be will depend on its ability to attract more members. On the group's website there's already a mentioning of a disagreement between the founder of WordPress and Apple, making it a possibility that his company (named Automattic) might join at some point.

The role model for the CAF is presumably the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), an anti-Microsoft lobbying group that was effectively managed by a Clifford Chance antitrust lawyer in Brussels. But in the Microsoft EU antitrust context, a few major companies like IBM, Oracle and Sun were all it took for such an organization to be credible. If the CAF wants to convince policy-makers that there's widespread disagreement with Apple's and Google's app distribution terms, the group will need to represent a far more significant percentage of the millions of smartphone apps out there than it does today, with several of its members having very specific disagreements with Apple that are not per se representative of the relationships with Apple and Google that the app developer community at large enjoys.

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