Apple (AAPL) must have been pounding protein shakes and swilling creatine, because the iPhone maker spent much of its week flexing its 42-inch biceps all over Silicon Valley. Last week, the company went after Facebook for breaching Apple's enterprise developer program agreement. In essence, the social network used the developer program, which is designed for companies to test apps internally, to send an app to some consumers that tracked their user data.
Apple subsequently revoked Facebook's (FB) use of the enterprise program, following a report about the issue by TechCrunch, cutting off the social media giant's ability to use such apps. It also impacted Facebook employees' ability to access company-specific apps they may need to do their jobs.
It turned out, however, that Facebook wasn't the only company breaking Apple's agreement. Google (GOOG, GOOGL) was also sending out apps to consumers by abusing the enterprise developer program. And like Facebook, Google had its access revoked.
Apple has since re-enabled both Facebook and Google's access to the enterprise developer program, after the companies pulled their apps, but that raises the question: Should Apple be able to exert so much control over other companies? And what about consumer apps?
Apple's ability to kick Facebook and Google off of their own apps proves just how much power the iPhone maker has. What's more, it helps illustrate how much Facebook and Google need Apple. If those companies want access to the 1.4 billion Apple devices on the market, they have to follow the hardware maker's rules.
Why Apple turned off those apps
Apple pulled back the certificates for both Facebook and Google for the same reason. The companies were only supposed to use Apple's iOS enterprise developer program to create and test apps internally. None of the apps were supposed to be available to consumers, because that's what Apple's App Store is designed for.
Instead, both Facebook and Google skirted the App Store by sending those apps through the enterprise developer program. It's worth noting that the apps were designed to scan a users' smartphone to see exactly what apps they use and how often, something App Store apps aren't allowed to do. Users who installed the apps were also paid to do so.
So, when TechCrunch reported that Facebook's app existed and explained how it was getting out, Apple responded by pulling the plug on the company's enterprise program access. Google was then found to have a similar program, so Apple killed that, too.
"My particular take on it is that Apple's response is very measured, and instead of throwing their weight around it shows how they're kind of locked in this relationship with Facebook and Google," explained University of Buffalo School of Law professor Mark Bartholomew. "To me this doesn't seem like overreach but I see the potential for overreach down the road.”
Apple has a long-running stance on privacy protection. CEO Tim Cook has called consumer privacy a human right and said that the kind of data collecting that companies like Facebook and Google conduct is an invasion of privacy. Cook's Apple even took the step of blocking social media trackers on third-party websites in its Safari browser.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has fired backed at Cook in the past telling Vox that Cook's take on Facebook's data use, and suggestion that the company doesn't care about users "extremely glib and not at all aligned with the truth." Of course, Facebook isn't the only company that uses consumer data to turn a profit. Google uses consumers’ information to help sell ads to advertisers. And Amazon is quickly becoming a major player in the online advertising marketplace.
"One kind of wrinkle here is that this is a privacy dispute, and Apple's brand here is really about privacy … and what goes along with that is a tradeoff," Bartholomew said. "To enjoy Apple's greater attention to privacy, you have to put up with this curated environment that allows you less freedom to use these devices as you might find in other spaces."
"I'm comfortable to a degree with putting it out there and letting people decide that tradeoff," he added. "I just think it should be really transparent."
Should Apple have that much control?
It's important to note that Apple's move didn't impact Facebook’s or Google's consumer products. Those go through the Apple App Store, which Facebook and Google would appear to abide by. But the truth is, Apple could easily pull apps from its own App Store, cutting off companies' access to consumers.
In fact, Apple has done just that in the past. In 2017, Apple removed a slew of VPN, virtual private network, apps from its local Chinese App Store. Apple said it made the move to comply with the Chinese government's rules, which prohibit the use of certain VPNs.
That's because those such apps can be used to circumvent China's so-called Great Firewall, which blows access to websites and services China's Communist regime deems inappropriate. Apple defended the move saying it was abiding by Chinese law, just as it does with U.S. law.
Apple is also the final arbiter when it comes to the apps you can install on the phone you own. That's because the company prohibits the installation of apps from third-party sources outside of its own App Store. If your app isn't on the App Store, it's not getting on consumers' phones.
In fact, the only way you can install apps on an iPhone from outside of the App Store is to crack, or jailbreak, the handset, which voids its warranty. Google, on the other hand, allows you to install third-party apps by changing an option in its Android devices' settings menu.
Apple's decision helps ensure the apps users install are safe and from verified sources. Does that then cross a line in preventing users from accessing the apps they want? Not according to Bartholomew.
"When they cross the line is when it's obvious that people aren't free to make the choices they want, and this particular situation doesn't seem that way to me," he said.
"I guess the line for me is when Apple is just really controlling people's choices in a way that wouldn't reflect a flourishing marketplace."
Apple users will have to decide if a lack of a completely open app store is worth the tradeoff for more privacy. And so far, it looks as though it is.
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