Sunday, March 7, 2021

Apple may already have lost the strategic battle over antitrust market definition in multiple European jurisdictions: App Store monopoly

Never before has there been so much hope that the mobile app store tyranny may come to an end. It's a marathon, not a sprint. There'll be appeals, and the freedom fighters of the Digital Era may experience setbacks. But the first week of March  2021 may very well be judged by history as the end of the beginning.

I've previously commented on the app store bill adopted by the Arizona House of Representatives. This is just the first legislative hurdle of three, and there may be court challenges even if the state senate voted in favor and the governor signed. But it shows that the app store liberation movement is able to build political majorities and overcome Apple and Google's counterlobbying. Initiatives are underway in multiple states, and it varies by state whether Democrats or (as in Arizona) Republicans take the lead.

On the other side of the Big Pond, Apple's purely pretextual defenses of its app store monopoly are falling apart. There were not one, not two, but three news cycles this week, two of which are bad news for Apple and the third is more likely than not to portend another decision against Apple:

  • The Day of Reckoning is coming for Apple in Brussels, with the European Commission's Directorate-General for Competition (DG COMP) preparing a Statement of Objections (SO). Apparently the EU antitrust authority plans to issue the SO--further to a complaint by Spotify (there was also a similar one by a Rakuten subsidiary)--before the summer vacation season.

    An SO is not a final decision. Subsequently to the SO, a company under investigation gets to make its case again--and then there's a hearing and, finally, a ruling, which in turn is appealable. I repeat myself in the same post: It's a marathon, not a sprint.

    In Europe, Apple's market share is only about 30%. A dominant market position (the EU term for what is called a monopoly in the U.S.) can, therefore, be identified only by--which I consider absolutely correct in this case--defining a single-brand market. It's clear that Apple has failed to convince EU competition experts that the market should be defined more broadly, such as all mobile apps or all music distribution channels.

    The situation on the market definition front could be even worse for Apple: DG COMP may agree with Spotify's tying theory, which involves two markets: an iOS app distribution market and an iOS in-app payment services market. With a view to what may be the winning theory here in the EU, let me point you to the December 2020 version of what has already become a true app store antitrust classic: Professor Damien Geradin and Dimitrios Katsifis's The Antitrust Case Against the Apple App Store (Revisited).

    Apple's argument against tying is that the App Store and the payment system are just one product. Indivisible. Well, atoms were considered indivisible (thus the Greek name) until subatomic particles were discovered, and Epic Games achieved nuclear fission by an act of civil obedience, as its CEO called it in a CNN interview. Epic simply delivered proof that there is demand for alternative payment systems. Even if Epic had not done so, one would just have to download Amazon's shopping app or a parking or public transport app to come to the same realization.

    A Commission SO holding Apple responsible for tying might even give rise to a request for judicial notice in the period between the Epic Games v. Apple antitrust trial in the Northern District of California and Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers's ruling.

    For a long time I was somewhat skeptical of whether Spotify's complaint was just going to lead to a "Lex Spotify" or help the developer community at large. Having researched the app store antitrust situation in greater detail since last summer, and considering that Epic--which doesn't specifically complain about direct competition from Apple, while Spotify is concerned about Apple Music--has joined the investigation, I'm definitely rooting for Spotify now. If Spotify prevails on market definition, Apple's App Store monopoly is finished in Europe.

    The closer I looked at the Spotify-Apple issue, the clearer it became to me that what Spotify is facing there is even worse than the problems experienced by major professional soccer clubs who are regulated by associations that are economic operators at the same time. To some degree, the associations' own soccer tournaments, especially some that involve national teams, also compete with club tournaments, and those sports bodies regulate them all. There are serious issues there, but Apple has an "octopus" growth strategy, seeking to grab market after market by leveraging its iOS app monopoly. Apple Arcade is another example.

  • Another Reuters article reported on a letter sent out by the Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) of the Netherlands to developers and announcing that the investigation is complete and a ruling in the making. The Dutch antitrust agency didn't indicate what the decision would be. It's independent from DG COMP. But both are part of the European Competition Network and obviously in close contact. In light of DG COMP's upcoming SO, the odds are rather long against an acquittal unless there's something deficient about those specific complaints, which I doubt.

  • The UK has left the EU, giving the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) the opportunity to rule on high-profile cases that it previously had to leave to DG COMP. The primary author of the paper I mentioned further above, Professor Geradin, mentioned on Twitter that his firm, Geradin Partners, represents the companies whose UK complaints against Apple are now being investigated by the CMA.

    In the UK, the iPhone market share is approximately 50%, so the CMA might not even have to reach the question of a single-brand market: there's no plausible market definition in the UK that wouldn't make Apple's app distribution monopoly in that market subject to antitrust law.

A few years ago, Qualcomm appeared to be under similar antitrust pressure around the globe, but--unless a major surprise still happens somewhere--ultimately got off the hook. However, Qualcomm was able to do deals with key players such as Apple (which needed Qualcomm's 5G chips) and Samsung. It got a lot of support from the DOJ's antitrust chief at the time (a former Qualcomm lobbyist). There are reasons for which I believe Apple cannot extricate itself from this predicament the way Qualcomm did. But, again, this is going to be a rough ride and, to mention this word for the third and final time in this post, a marathon.

Share with other professionals via LinkedIn: