Germany to investigate Apple over major iPhone privacy feature

iOS 14.5 App Tracking Transparency HeroSource: Christine Romero-Chan / iMore

Germany’s competition body has proceedings initiated to investigate Apple over a major iPhone privacy feature that stops users from being tracked across different apps and services.

The Bundeskartellamt announced today:

The Bundeskartellamt has initiated proceeding against the technology company Apple to review under competition law its tracking rules and the App Tracking Transparency Framework. In particular, Apple’s rules have raised the initial suspicion of self-preferencing and/or impediment of other companies, which will be examined in the proceeding.

The investigation pertains to App Tracking Transparency, one of the best iPhone privacy features Apple has put in place, as introduced in iOS 14. It means users must opt-in to tracking by third parties using an IDFA identifier across different apps and services. However, the Bundeskartellamt is concerned that Apple does not apply the rules fairly to its own apps and services.

“We welcome business models which use data carefully and give users choice as to how their data are used,” said Andreas Mundt, President of the Bundeskartellamt. “A corporation like Apple which is in a position to unilaterally set rules for its ecosystem, in particular for its app store, should make pro-competitive rules. We have reason to doubt that this is the case when we see that Apple’s rules apply to third parties, but not to Apple itself.”

He went on to say that this could allow Apple to prefer its own offers or prevent other companies and is based largely on new competition rules introduced in Germany last year.

The concern, as laid out by the body, is that while third-party apps and services have to comply with Apple’s tracking rules, Apple does not:

These rules apparently do not affect Apple when using and combining user data from its own ecosystem. While users can also restrict Apple from using their data for personalized advertising, the Bundeskartellamt’s preliminary findings indicate that Apple is not subject to the new and additional rules of the App Tracking Transparency Framework.

“These rules apply equally to all developers — including Apple — and we have received strong support from regulators and privacy advocates for this feature,” an Apple spokesperson told iMore. “Apple holds itself to a higher privacy standard than almost any other company by providing users with an affirmative choice as to whether or not they would like personalized ads at all.” You can read the company’s full statement below.

Apple continues to invest heavily in privacy on devices like the iPhone 13 and in the latest iterations of its software, like iOS 16 as unveiled at WWDC 2022. The company added one major new privacy tool called Safety Check to iPhone this year, which will let users whose personal safety is at risk from domestic or intimate partner violations quickly remove access to granted to others for services like iCloud, rest privacy permissions, and limit messages to the device they have in-hand.

Statement from Apple:

“Apple believes in thriving and competitive markets, and through the App Store, we’ve helped millions of developers turn their brightest ideas into apps that change the world. In Germany alone, the iOS app economy supports hundreds of thousands of jobs and has given developers of all sizes the same opportunity to share their passion and creativity with users, while creating a secure and trusted place for customers to download the apps they love.

“Privacy has always been at the center of our products and features. At Apple, we believe that a user’s data to them and they should get to decide whether to share their data and with whom. We have long believed in the power of advertising to connect businesses with customers—and that you can have great advertising with great privacy. App Tracking Transparency (ATT) simply gives users the choice whether or not they want to allow apps to track them or share their information with data brokers. ATT does not prevent companies from advertising or restrict their use of the first-party data they obtain from users with their consent.

“These rules apply equally to all developers — including Apple — and we have received strong support from regulators and privacy advocates for this feature. Apple holds itself to a higher privacy standard than almost any other company by providing users with an affirmative choice as to whether or not they would like personalized ads at all.

“We will continue to engage constructively with the FCO to address any of their questions and discuss how our approach promotes competition and choice, while protecting users’ privacy and security.”

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