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Over the past couple of months, Apple has been forced to acquiesce to court rulings and regulatory agencies on how it runs its App Store, and now it’s making at least some of these changes official with a small revision to its App Store Guidelines.
The key issue that Apple has found itself under fire on at least three different fronts is the rule commonly referred to as the “anti-steering” provision in its App Store Guidelines — the rather Draconian rule that Apple has in place to prohibit app developers from even talking about the fact that there are other ways to purchase in-app subscriptions.
In other words, developers who sell digital goods, whether that’s in-game currency or Netflix subscriptions, can’t let users of their iPhone, iPad, and Mac apps sign up for their services unless they use Apple’s in-app purchasing system, and give Apple a 30% commission on those sign-ups.
Developers who decide they prefer not to give Apple a cut of their sales can still be on the App Store, and can still offer alternative purchasing methods, but they are completely forbidden from telling their users that these other methods exist.
This has led to absurd and user-hostile scenarios where users downloading apps like Netflix and Spotify are presented with a welcome screen that lets them sign in to an existing account, but doesn’t provide any way to set up a new account — or even any information on how to set up a new account.
You can’t sign up for Netflix in the app. We know it’s a hassle. After you’re a member, you can start watching in the app.
Granted, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for most people to realize that they can sign up for Netflix by visiting the company’s main website — even using Safari on the iPad or iPhone — but Apple has always prohibited Netflix from even saying something as simple as “Go to our website.”
Of course, that’s all well and good for big companies like Netflix and Spotify, but it’s fair to say that the process would be considerably more opaque for users who download less well-known apps.
Further, Apple’s rules are so restrictive that it only allows certain third-party apps to work this way — so-called “Reader” apps that basically include anything designed to consume content, whether that’s ebooks, music, or videos.
Apple’s App Store Guidelines not only prohibited developers from informing users of alternative purchasing methods, but also from contacting them about other ways to subscribe using information collected inside the app. In other words, if an iPhone user signed up for a developer’s newsletter within their app, the developer still couldn’t in any way let the customer know about any offers available outside of Apple’s in-app purchasing system.
Basically, when it came to iPhone, iPad, and Mac users, Apple required developers to pretend that no other payment methods existed beyond the App Store’s in-app purchasing system.
In the past three months, Apple has had to deal with rulings from the Japan Fair Trade Commission, settle a class-action lawsuit, and the results of its high-profile case with Epic Games, all of which have ruled against these anti-steering provisions in one way or another.
While all three of these cases objected to Apple’s rules, the proposed solutions have been somewhat different, and so far, Apple is only taking the smallest of possible baby steps in its settlement of a 2019 class-action lawsuit in which developers accused Apple of abusing its market power by charging excessively high fees and stifling competition and innovation.
Back in August, Apple agreed to pay out $100 million to settle that particular lawsuit, in the form of a Small Developer Assistance Fund, as well as “clarify” its policies to explain that iOS developers can indeed contact their customers via email to inform them of alternative payment options.
Naturally, Apple spun this in the most positive light possible, stating that it would “provide more flexibility” for small developers.
To give developers even more flexibility to reach their customers, Apple is also clarifying that developers can use communications, such as email, to share information about payment methods outside their iOS app.
Last week, Apple made these changes official by updating the App Store Review Guidelines, deleting the relevant section 3.1.3, which previously read:
“Developers cannot use information obtained within the app to target individual users outside the app to use purchasing methods other than in-app purchase (such as sending an individual user an email about other purchasing methods after that individual signs up for an account within the app).”
Apple also added a new section, 5.1.1, that permits apps to “request basic contact information” from users, as long as it remains optional for the user. In other words, developers can’t force users to supply a name and email address to use the app. Such requests also have to comply with other privacy provisions in the guidelines, in particular those collecting information from kids.
“Apps may request basic contact information (such as name and email address) so long as the request is optional for the user, features and services are not conditional on providing the information, and it complies with all other provisions of these guidelines, including limitations on collecting information from kids.”
The settlement agreement also included several other concessions, including more than 400 new price points for subscriptions, in-app purchases, and paid apps, as well as more transparency in the App Review appeals process.
If this sounds like the tiniest of baby steps, that’s because it really is. While there’s reason to celebrate any movement away from the extremely restrictive anti-steering policies, the change so far only allows developers to talk about alternative purchase methods via other communication channels, effectively removing a “gag order” that should never have been there in the first place.
Meanwhile, however, developers still aren’t allowed to actually talk about this within their actual apps — at least not yet. According to Apple, that’s coming early next year, as a result of an investigation by the Japan Fair Trade Commission, but it also sounds like it’s still going to be limited to Apple’s arbitrary category of “reader” apps — those that “provide previously purchased content or content subscriptions for digital magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, and video.”
As for the huge decision in the Epic Games case? This is the big one — the one that would signal an end to the anti-steering provision for once and for all — so it’s probably no surprise that Apple isn’t going to take it laying down.
Despite winning against Epic Games on every other count, and calling it a “resounding victory,” Apple still plans to appeal the ruling to at least buy itself some more time, and hopefully get some clarification on exactly how far it actually needs to go to comply, since there’s likely to be quite a bit of debate on a ‘button’ vs an ‘external link’ — something that could mean the difference between simply letting developers hand off users to other websites and integrating competing third-party payment systems directly inside their apps.
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