PSA: Apple’s new rules let apps raise subscription prices automatically

Surely, this won’t be abused? Alongside the launch of the iOS 15.5 update, Apple introduced a new set of rules to govern auto-renewing subscriptions on the App Store. Now, instead of asking users to agree to any subscription price increases, developers will be able to roll out a price increase without the user’s explicit consent. The feature feels somewhat anti-consumer, as it allows developers to simply inform customers they’ll be charged more, not require the customer to opt-in to the higher pricing.

TechCrunch first broke the news that Apple was pilot testing this program last month, when it appeared Disney+ subscription customers had simply been told their price was increasing but weren’t asked for their consent. Apple then confirmed this was the result of a “new commerce feature” it planned to launch soon, which it said would be “great for both developers and users.”

It’s certainly great for developers! For users, maybe not so much.

Apple’s position on the matter is that it could save consumers the hassle of having their subscriptions automatically canceled just because they didn’t see the notification or email that asked them to opt in to the price increase.

“This has led to some services being unintentionally interrupted for users and they must take steps to resubscribe within the app, from Settings on iPhone and iPad, or in the App Store on Mac,” the company explained in its announcement on Monday.

However, the flip side of this argument is that those same customers who would have missed the consent notification will likely be the same ones who would now miss the notification informing them their subscription will be increasing in price.

These may include customers who don’t keep a close eye on their inboxes and tend to miss Apple’s emails; those who keep their iOS notifications silenced or aggregated into summaries using Apple’s own notification management tools; as well as those who so infrequently use a particular subscription-based app that they would likely rather have their subscription lapse than be automatically opted in to paying more.

There’s also an argument here that this change could enable unscrupulous developers and scammers to better profit from their victims. Although Apple reviews apps for adherence to its App Store policies as part of its vetting process, it has for years struggled to rein in subscription scams. There are still a number of apps operating on the App Store that are leveraging fake reviews to give their app the appearance of being well received in order to scam users out of their money.

In an antitrust hearing last year, Congress even questioned Apple why it was not able to locate the fraudulent apps and scams, given they were “trivially easy to identify.” Instead, the wider public was only learning of the scams through “open-source reporting and journalists,” noted Georgia‚Äôs Senator Jon Ossoff at the time. Apple demurred, and insisted that it had invested millions in hardening its App Store’s security.

But today, subscription scams continue to persist. And, unfortunately, this new policy change could increase the damage done by those bad actors.

Apple, at least, built in a few protections to the new program so the feature can’t be egregiously abused. It says developers can’t increase prices more than once per year. The increase also can’t exceed 50% of the subscription price, and the difference in price can’t exceed $5 USD per period for non-annual subscriptions or $50 USD for annual subscriptions. It also must be permitted by local laws.

The company also says users will be warned of the price increase in advance via email, push notification and a message within the app. And Apple will notify users of how to view, manage and cancel subscriptions if they don’t want to pay more. It’s unclear how Apple will police this program to ensure scammers aren’t increasing prices more frequently than permitted or at higher rates that would otherwise require consent. Hopefully, Apple will keep a strict eye on the apps adopting this option.

Apple may have chosen to enact the policy to better cater to the larger app developers who are pushing for new regulations that would allow them to collect subscription payments without having to use Apple’s own in-app purchasing system, which requires a rev share with the tech giant. These companies want to control their own customer relationships and manage their own payments — control that could include doling out the occasional price increase without having to regain the consent of their entire subscription base each time.

While some developers may welcome Apple’s latest change to save themselves the trouble of having to gather consent for smaller price changes, others are likely worried about the potential for abuse — particularly because that abuse could have long-term negative impacts on consumers’ willingness to subscribe to apps in the first place.