Apple Dodges French Antitrust Order on Ad Rules Amid Probe

Apple Inc. dodged a French freeze on planned changes to the way it collects iPhone users’ data -- but faces an in-depth probe into whether the measures will harm advertisers.

While Apple’s app tracking transparency in the forthcoming iOS 14 software update doesn’t seem to be unfair or abusive, the French Competition Authority will examine whether the company applied less stringent rules to itself than to other services, the regulator said on Wednesday.

The authority rejected advertisers’ call for so-called interim measures that could have prevented Apple from rolling out the update this year.

“We need to get into the machine, into the matrix, because that’s where Apple’s -- as well as Google’s and Amazon’s -- economic structuring happens,” French antitrust chief Isabelle de Silva told reporters at a Paris press conference, referring to a shift toward more oversight of U.S. tech giants.

Online advertising has attracted intense scrutiny from regulators in recent months as both Apple and Google roll out initiatives to curb user tracking which they say will improve personal privacy. Advertisers complain that losing the ability to track how ads prompt purchases will devastate revenue and give more control to online platforms.

Fast Action

De Silva said the case shows the need for fast antitrust action into technical issues, she said, promising a final ruling by early 2022 at the latest. An emergency antitrust order to halt Apple’s moves immediately wasn’t warranted since Apple had already delayed the changes until March or April to allow advertisers develop alternatives.

“Apple is in a very special situation with its users,” she said. “Self-preferencing is about serving oneself better” than the smaller services that rely on the platform.

Apple’s self-proclaimed privacy push includes plans for users to tick a box to consent to data collection for its so-called identification for advertisers, or IDFA service on the iOS 14 software release due this year. App developers have historically used IDFA to help target users with ads and track the performance of ads across different devices.

Tick Box

The French authority said that Apple’s rules themselves don’t appear unfair but that officials still want to examine how Apple applies them. De Silva said getting the users to tick a box to grant consent wasn’t immediately deemed to be unfair.

Apple is “grateful” to the authority “for recognizing that app tracking transparency in iOS 14 is in the best interest of French iOS users,” the company said in a statement. “We look forward to further engagement” with regulators on user privacy and competition.

The French case comes as Apple also faces separate probes from U.S., European Union, U.K. and Dutch regulators into its app store and payment system. CNIL, the French privacy regulator, said Tuesday it is also examining allegations that Apple’s personalized advertising feature violates EU privacy rules.

De Silva said a separate probe into Google’s potential breach of an antitrust order on talks with publishers would get a decision soon, along with two other online advertising investigations involving companies she didn’t identify.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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