Facebook parent company Meta is accusing Apple of harming competition in the mobile app marketplace through restrictions on iOS software surrounding game streaming and other related technologies, according to a new filing with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration published Thursday.
"Despite having some of the most popular apps in the world, Meta’s ability to innovate on its products and services and even reach its customers is determined, and in some cases, significantly limited, by the most popular mobile operating systems, such as Apple’s iOS," the filing reads.
Meta submitted the comment as part of an ongoing study the NTIA is conducting for the U.S. Department of Commerce's White House Competition Council, which the Biden Administration established last year as part of an executive order to study market competition across various sectors of the U.S. economy.
Apple responded to the filing with a statement:
Apple believes in vibrant and competitive markets and through the App Store, we’ve helped millions of developers around the world turn their brightest ideas into apps that change the world. The App Store is an unprecedented engine of growth that has turbo-charged competition and innovation for developers big and small. Today, third-party apps, including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, are among the most popular apps on the App Store. We have every interest in supporting a robust developer community, and we intend to stay on that path.
Privacy has always been at the center of what we believe. At Apple, we believe that a user’s data belongs to them and they should get to decide whether to share their data and with whom. App Tracking Transparency gives users the choice whether or not they want to allow apps to track them by linking their information with data from third parties for the purpose of advertising, or sharing their information with data brokers. These rules apply equally to all developers — including Apple — and we have received strong support from regulators and privacy advocates for this feature.
Meta's filing focuses on three areas: web browsing, as it relates to Apple's restrictions on what web apps can do versus native iOS software; gaming and the restrictions Apple imposes on developers who try to bundle HTML5 and cloud-based games within existing apps (like the Facebook app); and Apple's App Tracking Transparency initiative, the privacy feature the company rolled out last year that Meta has said will cost it about $10 billion in advertising revenue this year.
"Taken together, Apple’s restrictions on third-party web browsers, its restrictions on third-party gaming apps, and its ATT framework severely limit developers’ ability to create and consumers’ ability to enjoy cross-platform apps that could lower barriers to switching from Apple to Android and other devices," the filing goes on to say. "Apple’s self-serving tactics prevent consumers from realizing the innovation and benefits of a dynamic and otherwise well-functioning mobile app ecosystem."
Meta's feud with Apple over app store restrictions is not a new one by any means, but it has intensified in the last few years as Meta has increased its investments in the gaming sector. The social networking giant tried in 2020 to publish a dedicated Facebook Gaming app on Apple's App Store that would feature livestreaming, similar to Amazon's Twitch, alongside mobile games that could be played instantly with no download required, either using HTML5 technology or via streaming from the cloud.
Apple rejected the app repeatedly due to a series of cloud gaming restrictions the iPhone maker was forced to update for clarity. Still, many of the restrictions remained following the update, resulting in a high-profile back-and-forth between the two companies that has only grown more bitter as Apple has targeted Meta with iOS privacy changes and Tim Cook has taken public shots at Mark Zuckerberg and his company's business model.
Meta ultimately removed the gaming components from the Facebook Gaming app to publish it on the App Store. It later resorted to asking users to try a web version that skirts Apple's restrictions; Apple says web apps for cloud gaming and similar features are allowed on the iPhone, but it has strict rules around including those same features inside apps unless the app is dedicated to something else. (That's why, for instance, you can play HTML5 mini-games inside the main Facebook app — because by Apple's logic, it is primarily a social networking platform and not a gaming one.)
Meta cites switching costs and ecosystem lock-in as reasons why it cannot simply rely on to Google's Android, which has fewer restrictions regarding what apps can and cannot do with regards to gaming. “Restrictions that Apple imposes on cross-platform gaming, web-based, and ad-supported apps prevent them from lowering barriers to switching and lock consumers into iOS devices," the filing says. “Apple’s policies restricting cloud games and HTML5-based games have prevented Meta from introducing features that would enable developers to distribute and monetize, and users of iOS devices to enjoy, a variety of games. …These limitations have curbed Facebook Gaming’s growth and prevented it from emerging as a robust competitor to Apple in game discovery and distribution.”
Meta's filing does not mention Epic Games, the Fortnite creator that sued Apple and Google in 2020 over many of these same restrictions. The comment does however make many of the same arguments as Epic did in those cases. Epic's suit against Apple is currently tied up in appeals, and the similar Google suit has yet to get a court date.
"Apple’s restrictions serve to maintain the App Store as the primary place for users to discover and access games on iOS devices," the filing concludes. "They also have the effect of maintaining high barriers to switching to an Android device, because users’ game data will often be stored in native iOS game apps and cannot be easily transferred outside of the Apple ecosystem, whereas Instant Games and cloud gaming services would allow for a seamless transition between iOS and Android devices."
Update 5/26, 2:08PM ET: Added statement from Apple.