Sunday, August 8, 2021

Privacy and hypocrisy: Apple wants to know your location to sell you music, but governments must not ask you to scan QR codes to fight the pandemic

Last weekend I made an Android phone my primary mobile communications device. That was a lot of work, and I'll have to pay for some apps and content again. There are antitrust issues concerning Android, which is why Epic Games's amended complaint is worth reading, particularly the part about "sideloading" (direct installation of apps) "drastically" limiting app developers' reach. But faced with the choice, I clearly prefer Android because Apple is too heavy-handed.

The Epic Games v. Apple antitrust ruling may come down anytime now in the Northern District of California, though I wouldn't be surprised if that huge case took the judge another month or more to distill into what will hopefully be a razor-sharp ruling. Even without a major antitrust trial or decision, more and more people can figure out that Apple's defenses of its App Store monopoly abuse are pretextual.

This weekend, I had a defining moment in which I realized that Apple is fooling the world's antitrust authorities and lawmakers to a greater extent than even the epic Epic trial in May exposed. The only Apple app I'm still using after my remigration to Android is Shazam. And just yesterday, Shazam for Android--I kid you not!--asked for GPS permission so it could later tell me where I was when I "discovered" a song.

Give me a break, Apple. It's not merely hypocritical or ridiculous in the sense of dual standards. It's an utter disgrace that the very same company that obstructed the UK government's efforts to combat COVID-19 by rejecting an update to the British contact-tracing app that would have enabled users to scan QR codes of venues asks users to give them access to their GPS location data for a laughable purpose like this. Apple appears to be only about making money, not about principle. They want to sell music (iTunes), and that's why they acquired Shazam for a couple hundred million bucks. To give you another reason to use Shazam and, which is Apple's ultimate goal, to sell you more songs, Apple asks you for GPS access--but when a government facing the biggest global health crisis in about a century wants to ask (not require!) users to scan QR codes of venues in order to inform them of infection risks, Apple--like the most malevolent dictator you can imagine--prevents that app from being published on iOS.

Ask yourself this simple question: would you rather know that you might have gotten infected with COVID, or would you rather know where you first searched on Shazam for The Weeknd's Blinding Lights?

What makes Apple's double standards even worse is that an optional QR code scan compromises one's privacy to a far lesser degree than GPS access. Every location on Earth has GPS coordinates, but only a limited number of venues have QR codes at the entrance--and GPS is far more granular. And once you've granted an app GPS access, it can track you all the time, while you will always be in control when a QR code is scanned. But even if Shazam and the rejected version of the UK's contact-tracing app relied on the same method to determine your location, it's just unacceptable to have no qualms about collecting location data for music marketing purposes while prohibiting this when human lives are on the line.

The only consistency here is that Apple's leadership's approach to COVID is generally questionable, and its return-to-work plan has drawn well-founded criticism from many employees.

Today I tweeted about this Shazam v. contact tracing inconsistency (this post continues below the tweet):

I then decided to also write this blog post so as to ensure that many more of my readers, who include many decision makers and multipliers, would become aware of this.

There's a lot more that one could discuss when it comes to Apple, privacy, and hypocrisy. For now, instead of going into detail, let me just touch on a few items quickly:

  • CNBC: Apple’s privacy reputation is at risk with the changes it announced (about its identification of objectionable/illegal images on users' phones)

    This tweet sums it up nicely ("What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone -- but we'll take a peek"):

  • Last month, a Bloomberg Law article on standard-essential patent (SEP) policy mentioned that "Apple and other tech companies, meanwhile, also are lobbying for state laws that could address what they view as anticompetitive behavior from some patent owners." (emphasis added)

    Hey, that's the same Apple that has been telling state legislatures in Arizona and many other states that they shouldn't legislate on mobile app stores (and I guess Apple is not exactly a fan of right-to-repair state laws either). By the way, patent law is exclusively federal law...

  • A couple of months ago, a Nokia policy officer noted on LinkedIn that Apple opposes value-based (ad valorem, percentage of sales) SEP royalties but taxes app developers at a rate of 30% (which Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers accurately summed up in her examination of Apple CEO Tim Cook as "charging the gamers to subsidize Wells Fargo"). Almost a decade ago, Apple wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee's leadership (a rebuttal of patent-licensing arguments made by Google) in which Apple used an analogy and said that all car drivers pay the same highway toll, whether they own a jalopy or a new sports car. Apple's 2019 FRAND policy statement, which is Cupertino's current position on SEPs to the best of my knowledge, advocates the "use of a common royalty base and rate."

    SEPs v. apps inconsistencies are an interesting topic that I may address more specifically on some other occasion.

In closing, let me just point you to this Reuters article by Foo Yun Chee, who was told by the Euroepan Commission's antitrust chief, Executive Vice President Magrethe Vestager, that Apple should not use privacy (and security) for "a shield against competition, because [the EU competition commissioner] think[s] customers will not give up neither security nor privacy if they use another app store or if they sideload."

In my own company's antitrust complaints against Apple, I describe alternative app stores as the best remedy.

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