Apple CEO Tim Cook struggles with efforts to regulate the App Store in the title of privacy

Apple CEO Tim Cook launched an attack against efforts to regulate the App Store in a rare public speech on Tuesday, warning that proposed legislation aimed at improving competition could “undermine” privacy and security protections on the company’s products.

The statements amount to Cook’s most visible effort yet to fight legislation that would essentially loosen the iPhone maker’s grip on app downloads — forcing Apple to overhaul a major line of business. In the Washington, D.C. speech, Cook capitalized on Apple’s image as a privacy-friendly tech giant, arguing that the proposals would allow app makers to circumvent the App Store’s privacy and security protections, leaving people with unsafe apps or malware on their devices.

“Removing a safer option will leave users with fewer options, not more,” he said.

Apple eschewed Washington’s artistic style for years. Now it is in the center of the bull’s eye.

For several months, Cook, Apple lobbyists and industry trade groups made similar arguments in private phone calls and letters to lawmakers in Washington and their staff. But the CEO used the opportunity of a keynote address at a Congressional backyard conference to escalate the fight, drawing further public attention to Apple’s attack on the legislation.

Cook’s argument stood in contrast to a speech given by Federal Trade Commission Chair Lena Khan the day before at the same conference. Khan defended a paradigm shift in how regulators approach privacy, saying the FTC will assess data privacy issues through the lenses of consumer protection and competition.

FTC Chair Lina Khan calls for paradigm shift in data privacy

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Tech companies are increasingly concerned about efforts in Congress to pass legislation to expand competition in Silicon Valley, after a bipartisan investigation concluded in 2020 that Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google engaged in anti-trust-style anti-competitive tactics. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Apple declined to comment on whether Cook scheduled meetings with Biden administration officials or regulators while in Washington. The White House and the Federal Trade Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Ministry of Justice declined to comment.

Senators introduced two bills – The Online American Innovation and Choice Act and the Open App Markets Code – This may force major changes to the Apple App Store. European Union officials also recently reached an agreement on the Digital Markets Act, new rules that seek to ensure technology gatekeepers do not give their services better than competitors. Cook’s comments come as the company faces antitrust scrutiny from regulators in both the United States and Europe, and is also embroiled in legal battles with app developers, including Fortnite, Epic Games.

For years, Apple has tried to distance itself from the scandals implicating its tech industry peers by improving its reputation for privacy, touting its investments in encryption and tools that have enforced greater transparency around developer data collection. Cook capitalized on those efforts in a speech on Tuesday, calling on privacy professionals at the conference to join Apple in its fight against competition legislation. He aimed to illustrate the battles over technology regulation as a debate about basic human rights, arguing that people cannot accept the loss of privacy.

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“Privacy is what allows us to be ourselves and be ourselves without the fear of our every move being seen, recorded or leaked,” he said.

Cook said Apple supports some privacy regulations, expressed support for privacy regulations in Europe and reiterated that the company continues to demand “strong and comprehensive” privacy law in the United States. Efforts made years ago on Capitol Hill to reach agreement on privacy legislation have largely failed.

During congressional debates on the legislation, Apple’s privacy and security arguments have resonated with some lawmakers, particularly those from its home state of California.

But some security experts have dismissed Apple’s claims that the legislation would jeopardize consumers’ privacy and security. This includes technologist Bruce Schneier, who has argued that tech giants’ grip on app stores sometimes prevents security-improving tools from being distributed, and said the company’s arguments are “driven by their own self-interest rather than the public interest.”

A Washington Post review last year found that scams disappear in plain sight in the App Store. Of the 1,000 highest-earning apps on the App Store, nearly 2 percent are scams, The Post mentioned.

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