Is Apple engaging in anti-competitive behavior by removing parental control apps from the App Store, or is it protecting the security and privacy of children by removing apps that misuse mobile device management?
“Apple cracks down on apps that fight iPhone addiction.”
That’s not the Onion. That’s not Saturday Night Live. That’s an actual headline from the New York Times, the Gray Lady, the paper of record.
The Times could have also, easily, used a different headline:
“Apple removes child-targeting potential spyware from the App Store.”
It’s just as absurd but in no way less accurate. I don’t know if it would bait any fewer clicks, but I do know the Times just shouldn’t be in that business either way. It should, not to get all Aaron Sorkin for a moment, be the business of informing its readers, of speaking truth to stupid.
Now, I hate the term fake news. I hate it. It’s a political construct and not an informational one. What this is is just lazy, sensationalism, and the best and only way to deal with it isn’t to label dismiss it, because that’s just as lazy, but to fact check it, to hold it up to scrutiny and see how well it holds up.
The Times Take
Here’s how the Times sets this up:
They all tell a similar story: They ran apps that helped people limit the time they and their children spent on iPhones. Then Apple created its own screen-time tracker. And then Apple made staying in business very, very difficult.
Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc, to stick with the theme. After it, therefore because of it. It’s a classic saying. Well, actually, a classic logical fallacy. The Times is putting those two sentences together to avoid actually stating Apple removed the apps because Apple launched it’s own version of the feature, but also to strongly imply Apple did just exactly that.
If it’s true, why not just say it? If it’s not true, why not just say why Apple removed the apps. If the Times doesn’t know, why not just that that?
Over the past year, Apple has removed or restricted at least 11 of the 17 most downloaded screen-time and parental-control apps, according to an analysis by The New York Times and Sensor Tower, an app-data firm. Apple has also clamped down on a number of lesser-known apps.
In some cases, Apple forced companies to remove features that allowed parents to control their children’s devices or that blocked children’s access to certain apps and adult content. In other cases, it simply pulled the apps from its App Store. Some app makers with thousands of paying customers have shut down. Most others say their futures are in jeopardy.
“They yanked us out of the blue with no warning,” said Amir Moussavian, chief executive of OurPact, the top parental-control iPhone app, with more than three million downloads. In February, Apple pulled the app, which accounted for 80 percent of OurPact’s revenue, from its App Store.
“They are systematically killing the industry,” Mr. Moussavian said.
Then, the cherry topper:
The screen-time app makers are the latest companies to suddenly find themselves both competing against Apple and at the mercy of the tech titan. By controlling the iPhone App Store, where companies find some of their most lucrative customers, Apple has unusual power over the fortunes of other corporations.
Now, there’s a legitimate discussion to be made about platforms and App Stores, and I had Nilay Patel of the Verge on with me a few weeks ago to do just that. It’s a potentially bigger discussion, one that goes to the heart of many modern economies, similar to Walmart having house brands and wielding unusual power over the fortunes of other corporations.
But this particular piece doesn’t seem interested in any of that, because, I don’t know, not fuddy enough?
The Time does include a brief statement from App Store PR’s Tammy Levine, which says:
Apple removed or required changes to the apps because they could gain too much information from users’ devices. She said the timing of Apple’s moves was not related to its introduction of similar tools.
Then, this fascinating bit:
In response to this article, Philip W. Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, said in emails to some customers that Apple “acted extremely responsibly in this matter, helping to protect our children from technologies that could be used to violate their privacy and security.”
The Apple Email
Fascinating in that that part was obviously added after the article was originally posted, even though I couldn’t find an update tag to that effect, but also in that it leaves out something fairly important from Schiller’s email — Schiller, who is Apple’s Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing and whose portfolio includes much of the App Store. Here’s what else the email, as published by MacRumors had to say:
Unfortunately the New York Times article you reference did not share our complete statement, nor explain the risks to children had Apple not acted on their behalf.
Now, as I said last column, I screw up all the time, so one of the things I learned early on is that when I get a statement from anyone or any company, I run the full statement as is. That’s the only way to make sure I’m presenting facts as absolutely accurately as possible.
If I think there’s something wrong or misleading or flat out false in the statement, I’ll say that as well, but I won’t change or edit a statement. Not ever.
So, that’s a hell of a charge for Apple to make and, if accurate, a hell of thing for the Times to get wrong.
The Newsroom News
What was Apple’s full statement to the times? Unless and until the Times posts it, we don’t know. But Apple has since posted its own statement to its own Newsroom, so we can look at that, including the explanation of the reasons — the risks — Schiller mentioned.
It’s long, so I won’t quote it in its entirety, but I’ll put a link along with the full Times article and Schiller’s letter, in the description below. But I will pull a few things, starting with the title.
The facts about parental control apps
That’s about a close as a company can get to calling bullcrap on something, in a way that puts their own credibility on the line, and so comes across with a lot of impact. It’s much smaller scale but not dissimilar to what Apple did to Bloomberg in response their Big Hack story, something that all these months later, Bloomberg hasn’t had the integrity to either backup or retract.
Apple opens up this way:
Apple has always believed that parents should have tools to manage their children’s device usage. It’s the reason we created, and continue to develop, Screen Time. Other apps in the App Store, including Balance Screen Time by Moment Health and Verizon Smart Family, give parents the power to balance the benefits of technology with other activities that help young minds learn and grow.
And, really, I think that’s just about the worst way to open. No other apps currently permissible on the App Store has the capabilities to really offer similar features in a convenient, effective way.
My guess is that Apple is doing what Apple typically does: Introducing Screen Time as a built-in feature, dog-fooding it, adjusting it if and as needed, and then, a year or two later, introducing an API — application programming interface — that other apps can use to securely, reliably, privately tap into the same data and offer alternative implementations and value-added services.
Schiller, in his letter, says almost as much:
we will work with developers to offer many great apps on the App Store for these uses, using technologies that are safe and private for us and our children.
It can feel annoyingly slow, especially to developers and customers who want more and different now, now, now, but it’s also something else — responsible. And that’s what you have to be when you manage a platform and are responsible for hundreds of millions of customers and all the possible repercussions that come with getting things wrong.
And here’s the core of Apple explanation:
We recently removed several parental control apps from the App Store, and we did it for a simple reason: they put users’ privacy and security at risk. It’s important to understand why and how this happened.
Over the last year, we became aware that several of these parental control apps were using a highly invasive technology called Mobile Device Management, or MDM. MDM gives a third party control and access over a device and its most sensitive information including user location, app use, email accounts, camera permissions, and browsing history. We started exploring this use of MDM by non-enterprise developers back in early 2017 and updated our guidelines based on that work in mid-2017.
So, basically, to provide screen-time like services, these apps were abusing Apple’s MDM system. That’s the systems big businesses use to manage the phones of all their workers and all the data the company, not the workers, want to control. And taking complete control of enrolled devices, these screen time apps effectively becoming the owners of all those devices, gaining access to all the data — including location and activity data – of everyone using them.
Does that mean the companies were abusing that control? No. But that also doesn’t mean they should have it. Ever.
Apple says just as much:
Parents shouldn’t have to trade their fears of their children’s device usage for risks to privacy and security, and the App Store should not be a platform to force this choice. No one, except you, should have unrestricted access to manage your child’s device.
Apple gave developers who were missing MDM 30 days to change. Some did. Others didn’t. Apple removed the ones that didn’t.
The Fallout (So Far)
The Times quotes a developer saying Apple never explained the exact changes needed or the reasons for them, and that it was all very nebulous, confusing, and frustrating. If accurate, that’s terrible. In these kinds of situations, over-communication is the only decent recourse for everyone involved.
If Apple hadn’t removed the apps, though, there’s a very real possibility the Times, and/or some other pub, would have run just as breathless a piece titled: Apple fails to act on App Store abuses, puts the privacy of children at risk.
As to the anti-competitive charges, the timing certainly could seem suspicious, happening almost a year after Apple introduced their own Screen Time feature.
while the timing does absolutely look suspicious given Apple’s own Screen Time debuted last year and this is happening now, not at some point prior to that, Apple states the fo
Apple has always supported third-party apps on the App Store that help parents manage their kids’ devices. Contrary to what The New York Times reported over the weekend, this isn’t a matter of competition. It’s a matter of security.
In this app category, and in every category, we are committed to providing a competitive, innovative app ecosystem. There are many tremendously successful apps that offer functions and services similar to Apple’s in categories like messaging, maps, email, music, web browsers, photos, note-taking apps, contact managers and payment systems, just to name a few. We are committed to offering a place for these apps to thrive as they improve the user experience for everyone.
Can we believe that? WhatsApp is on the App Store. So is Google Maps. Even indie apps like PCalc, Fantastical, and Halide, to name just a few, have not only shown you can absolutely compete successfully with Apple on the App Store, but you can totally kick their apps.
Again, it sucks that developers have to wait for Apple to provide a secure way to compete with them on screen time, but Apple internally will delay features until they can do them privately and securely as well.
For Apple, it’s a must-have.
Screen Time isn’t perfect. Far from it. People, especially in cross-platform families, have real and legitimate issues with it, and so do people who want options beyond those Apple provides.
There’s also a whole separate argument to be had about the best parental control is simply not allowing access to a device except for very short amounts of time under very specific circumstances, and not carrying your own device with you all the time, everywhere, including and especially your bedroom at night.
But that’s something completely different for us to fight about, and for me to do a follow-up in the future.
I know some of you are going to complain that I’m once again talking about the coverage instead of the issue, but forget the medium being the message, the coverage, for many people, the coverage ends up being the issue, especially when we’re talking about a massively mainstream pub like the New York Times.
It shapes opinion, discussion, perspective, everything. Which is why I think it’s so important to address how these issues are covered even while addressing the issues themselves.
Yes, it sucks for the developers who’ve had their apps removed, especially when those apps have been established for a long time. It affects their livelihood and the lives of their employees and families. But, developers always have and always will come second to customers. And, if there’s anything to blame Apple for here, it’s for not recognizing these apps were abusing mobile device management and either getting them to change or removing them sooner.
Because, everything else aside, the only thing that really matters here is this — nobody should be monitoring your kids’ iPhone but you.