Apple CEO Tim Cook questioned over App Store’s removal of rival screen time apps in antitrust hearing

Last year, Apple removed a number of screen time and parental control apps from its App Store, shortly after the company had released its own first-party screen time solution with the launch of iOS 12. At today’s antitrust hearing, Apple CEO Tim Cook was questioned about the move, given the anti-competitive implications.

Shortly after Apple debuted its own Screen Time feature set, several third-party app makers suddenly saw their own screen time solutions come under increased App Store review. Many apps also saw their app updates rejected or their apps removed entirely. The impacted developers had used a range of methods to track screen time, as there was no official means to do so. This had included the use of background location, VPNs and MDM-based solutions, and sometimes a combination of methods.

Apple defended its decision at the time, saying the removals had put users’ privacy and security at risk, given that they required access to a device’s location, app use, email accounts, camera permissions and more.

But lawmakers questioned Apple’s decision to suddenly seem to care about the user privacy threats coming from these apps — many of which had been on the market for years.

Rep. Lucy McBath (GA-D) began the line of questioning by reading an email from a mother who wrote to Apple about her disappointment over the apps’ removals, saying that Apple’s move was “reducing consumer access to much-needed services to keep children safe and protect their mental health and well-being.” She then asked why Apple had removed apps from competitors shortly after releasing its own screen time solution.

Cook responded much as Apple did last year, by saying the company was concerned about the “privacy and security of kids,” and that the technology the apps used was problematic.

“The technology that was being used at that time was called MDM, and it had the ability to sort of take over the kid’s screen, and a third party could could see it,” Cook said. “So we were worried about their safety.”

That’s perhaps not the most accurate description of how MDM works, as it describes MDM as some sneaky remote control tool. In reality, MDM technology has legitimate uses in the mobile ecosystem and continues to be used today. However, it was designed for enterprise use — like managing a fleet of employee devices, for example, not consumer phones. MDM tools can access a device’s location, control app use and email, and set various permissions, among other things that a corporate entity may want to do as part of their efforts in securing employee devices.

In a way, that’s why it made sense for parents who wanted to similarly control and lockdown their children’s iPhones. Though not a consumer technology, the app developers had seen a hole in the market and had found a way to fill it using the tools at their disposal. That’s how the market works.

Apple’s argument isn’t wrong, though. The way the apps used MDM was a privacy risk. But rather than banning the apps outright, it should have offered them an alternative. That is, instead of just booting out its competition, it should have also built a developer API for its iOS Screen Time solution in addition to the consumer-facing product.

Such an API could have allowed developers to build apps that could tap into Apple’s own screen time features and parental controls. Apple could have given the apps a deadline to make the transition instead of ending their businesses. This wouldn’t have harmed the developers or their end users, and would have addressed the privacy concerns associated with the third-party apps.

“The timing of the removals seem very coincidental,” McBath pointed out. “If Apple wasn’t attempting to harm competitors in order to help its own app, why did Phil Schiller, who runs the App Store, promote the Screen Time app to customers who complained about the removal of rival parental control apps?” she asked.

Cook replied that there are today more than 30 screen time apps in the App Store, so there is “vibrant competition for parental controls out there.”

But McBath noted that some banned apps were allowed back into the App Store six months later, without any significant privacy changes. (Apple rolled out new rules for MDM apps in June 2019.)

“Six months is truly an eternity for small businesses to be shut down. Even worse, if all the while a larger competitor is actually taking away customers,” she said.

Tim Cook wasn’t given a chance to respond further to this line of questioning as McBath moved on to question Apple’s refusal to allow Random House a way to sell e-books in its own app outside of Apple’s iBooks.

Cook deflected that question, saying “there are many reasons why the app might not initially go through the App store,” noting it could have been a technical problem.