Apple charging a commission of up to 30% on all payments made through its in-app purchase system, is a violation of its dominant position? CCI orders investigation

Competition Commission of India (CCI): Coram of Ashok Kumar Gupta (Chairperson) and Sangeeta Verma, Bhagwant Singh Bishnoi (Members) directs the investigation in view of an alleged violation of provisions of the Competition Act.

The informant had filed the present information under Section 19(1)(a) of the Competition Act, 2002 against Apple Inc. (OP-1) and Apple India Private Limited (AIPL) alleging contravention of various provisions of Section 4 of the Act.

Informant alleged that Apple uses a barrage of anti-competitive restraints and abuse of dominant practices in markets for distribution of applications (‘apps’) to users of smart mobile phones and tablets, and processing of consumers’ payments for digital content used within iOS mobile apps (‘in-app content’).

Further, it was added that Apple imposes unreasonable and unlawful restraints on app developers from reaching users of its mobile devices unless they go through the ‘App Store’ which is stated to be controlled by Apple. Adding to this, Apple required app developers who wish to sell digital in-app content to their consumers to use a single payment processing option offered by Apple, carrying a 30% commission.

The 30% commission may also amount to a form of ‘margin squeeze’ in breach of the provisions of Section 4 of the Act.

In contrast to the above position, app developers could make their products available to users of an Apple personal computer in an open market, through a variety of stores or even through direct downloads from a developer’s website, with a variety of payment options and competitive processing fees that average 2-5%.

In the informant’s view, the above-stated amounted to abuse of its dominant position on the part of Apple.

Apple’s marketing restrictions makes it difficult for multi-platform apps to inform their users of the ability to make out- of-app purchases, and since Apple has a monopoly over the distribution of iOS apps, app developers have no choice but to assent to this anti-competitive tie-in- arrangement and such conduct on part of OPs is in violation of the provisions of Section 4(2)(d) and Section 4(2)(e) of the Act.

Mandating the use of IAP limits the ability of the app developers to offer payment processing solutions of their choice to the users for app purchases as well as IAPs and amounts to imposition of unfair terms and condition in the purchase or sale of goods or services and moreover, it amounts to denial of market access for the competing payment gateway in violation of the provisions of Section 4(2)(c) of the Act.

Elaborating further, Apple expressly conditions the use of its App Store on the use of its In-App Purchase to the exclusion of alternative solutions in a per se unlawful tying arrangement.

Analysis, Law and Decision

While analysing the matter, Coram firstly noted that Apple’s ecosystem is tightly knit and vertically and exclusively integrated throughout the value chain wherein it offers apps, app store as well as smart devices.

Some consumers may have preference for closed ecosystem like Apple and others may have a preference for open ecosystems like that of Google.

 Apple’s proprietary in-app purchase system (IAP)

Apple prohibits app developers to include a button/link in their apps which take/steer the user to third party payment processing solution other than Apple’s IAP. While the App Store policies of Apple allows users to consume content such as music, e-books, etc. purchased elsewhere (e.g., on the website of the app developer) also in the app, its rules restrict the ability of app developers to inform users about other purchasing options through a notification in the app itself, which might be cheaper. This would result in higher price for the users of such apps.

Commission found that the lack of competitive constraint in the distribution of mobile apps affects the terms of which Apple provides access to its App Store including the commission rates and terms that thwart certain app developers from using other in-app payment systems.

Coram prima facie opined that mandatory use of Apple’s IAP for paid apps & in-app purchases restrict the choice available to the app developers to select a payment processing system of their choice especially considering when it charges a commission of up to 30% for app purchases and in-app purchases.

Market power being enjoyed by Apple due to its grip over iOS ecosystem resulted in ‘allegedly’ high commission fee of up to 30%.

Commission also observed that the intermediation by Apple between the app developer and the app user for payment-processing purposes, would also result in leveraging on the part of Apple as it is using its dominant position in the app store market to enter/protect its downstream market of various verticals in violation of Section 4(2)(e) of the Act.

The app developers have to agree to the usage of Apple’s IAP payment processing service, if they want to distribute their apps to the iOS users through Apple’s App Store. Apple conditions the provision of app distribution services on the app developer accepting supplementary obligations which by their nature or according to commercial usage, have no connection with the subject of the contract for the provision of distribution services, which results in violation of Section 4(2)(d) of the Act.

The above conduct, prima facie results in leveraging by Apple of its dominant position in App Store market to enter/protect its market for in-app purchase payment processing market, in violation of Section 4(2)(e) of the Act.

Another significant point noted by Commission was that App Store is the only channel for app developers to distribute their apps to iOS consumers which are pre-installed on every iPhone and iPad. Further, third party app stores are not allowed to be listed on Apple’s App Store.

Therefore, the above conduct prima facie results in denial of market access for the potential app distributors/app store developers in violation of Section 4(2)(c) of the Act. The said also results in limiting/restricting the technical or scientific development of the services related to the app store for iOS, due to reduced pressure of Apple to continuously innovate and improve its own app store, in violation of Section 4(2)(b) of the Act.

Conclusion

Coram prima facie opined that Apple violated the provisions of Section 4(2)(a), 4(2)(b), 4(2)(d) and 4(2)(e) of the Act, and hence warranted detailed investigation.

The Commission directed the Director-General to cause an investigation to be made into the matter under the provisions of Section 26(1) of the Act also directed the DG to complete the investigation and submit the said report. [Together We Fight Society v. Apple Inc., 2021 SCC OnLine CCI 62, decided on 31-12-2021]


Additional Read:

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