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UK opens antitrust investigation into Apple App Store over developer terms

The Competition and Markets Authority will see if the terms Apple forces app developers to sign are anticompetitive.

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Apple is under scrutiny in the UK.

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The UK is taking a close look at Apple over the terms and conditions it makes app developers sign for their apps to appear in its App Store. The Competition and Markets Authority, the country's competition watchdog, announced that it's opened a new antitrust investigation into the US tech giant on Thursday with the aim of establishing whether Apple's terms are unfair and break UK competition laws.

The investigation will take a close look at the fact that app developers can only distribute their apps to iPhone and iPad users through the App Store, and can only receive approval to do so from Apple by agreeing to the company's stringent terms and conditions. It will also examine whether it's fair that Apple forces in-app features, add-ons and upgrades to be paid for through its own Apple Pay payment system, with Apple charging developers up to 30% commission.

"Millions of us use apps every day to check the weather, play a game or order a takeaway," said Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA in a statement. "So, complaints that Apple is using its market position to set terms which are unfair or may restrict competition and choice -- potentially causing customers to lose out when buying and using apps -- warrant careful scrutiny."

A spokesperson for Apple reiterated the company's public support for "thriving and competitive markets" and said that the iOS App Store economy supported "hundreds and thousands of jobs" in the UK.

"The App Store has been an engine of success for app developers, in part because of the rigorous standards we have in place --applied fairly and equally to all developers -- to protect customers from malware and to prevent rampant data collection without their consent," the spokesperson said in a statement. "We look forward to working with the UK Competition and Markets Authority to explain how our guidelines for privacy, security and content have made the App Store a trusted marketplace for both consumers and developers."

The probe has been prompted by a combination of complaints directly from developers and the CMA's own ongoing examination of digital markets in the UK. This examination has thrown up some worrying trends, said Coscelli, which has sparked the creation of the Digital Markets Unit. This unit will launch other antitrust investigations into tech companies where there are grounds to do so and also work to establish a new code for governing online platforms.

Following Brexit, the UK is undertaking a fresh push to hold Big Tech to account now that it no longer relies on the EU to perform watchdog duties. Apple might be first in the firing line, but when the Digital Markets Unit was announced back in November, the CMA specifically said it would be keeping a close eye on Google and Facebook.

Apple is by now used to its App Store being the subject of scrutiny for antitrust investigations. In addition to the UK's probe, the EU currently has four open investigations into Apple, three of which pertain to the App Store. The CMA has said it will continue to coordinate closely with the EU Competition Commission, as well as other global agencies looking into similar concerns.