Telegram hits out at Apple's App Store 'tax' in latest EU antitrust complaint

Natasha Lomas

Apple has another antitrust charge on its plate. Messaging app Telegram has joined Spotify in filing a formal complaint against the iOS App Store in Europe -- adding its voice to a growing number of developers willing to publicly rail against what they decry as Apple's app "tax."

A spokesperson for Telegram confirmed the complaint to TechCrunch, pointing us to this public Telegram post where founder Pavel Durov sets out seven reasons why he thinks iPhone users should be concerned about the company's behavior.

These range from the contention that Apple's 30% fee on app developers leads to higher prices for iPhone users; to censorship concerns, given Apple controls what's allowed (and not allowed) on its store; to criticism of delays to app updates that flow from Apple's app review process; to the claim that the App Store structure is inherently hostile to user privacy, given that Apple gets full visibility of which apps users are downloading and engaging with.

This week Durov also published a blog post in which he takes aim at a number of "myths" he says Apple uses to try to justify the 30% app fee -- such as a claim that iOS faces plenty of competition for developers; or that developers can choose not to develop for iOS and instead only publish apps for Android.

"Try to imagine Telegram or TikTok as Android -only apps and you will quickly understand why avoiding Apple is impossible," he writes. "You can’t just exclude iPhone users. As for the iPhone users, the costs for consumers to switch from an iPhone to an Android is so high that it qualifies as a monopolistic lock-in," -- citing a study done by Yale University to bolster that claim.

"Now that anti-monopoly investigations against Apple have started in the EU and the US, I expect Apple to double down on spreading such myths," Durov adds. "We shouldn’t sit idly and let Apple’s lobbyists and PR agents do their thing. At the end of the day, it is up to us – consumers and creators – to defend our rights and to stop monopolists from stealing our money. They may think they have tricked us into a deadlock, because we’ve already bought a critical mass of their devices and created a critical mass of apps for them. But we shouldn’t be giving them a free ride any longer."

The European Commission declined to comment on Telegram's complaint. Update: A spokeswoman has now told us: "We confirm that we received a submission by Telegram against Apple. We will assess it under our standard procedures."

We also reached out to Apple for comment, but the company also declined to provide an on the record statement regarding Telegram's complaint. A spokesperson did point to a piece of analyst research, from earlier this year, that found iOS had a market share of 15% versus Android's 85%. They also flagged a separate analyst report, which looks at commission rates charged by app and digital content stores and marketplaces -- suggesting this shows that rates charged for similar types of stores are generally also around 30%.

So the company's overarching argument against "app tax" complaints continues to be the claim that: A) Apple can't have monopoly power, given its relatively small mobile OS market share (versus Android); and B) the App Store fee is fair because it's basically the same as everyone else charges. (On the latter point it's true Google also takes a 30% cut via the Play Store. However the Android platform lets users sideload apps; whereas, on iOS, users would have to jailbreak their device to get the same level of freedom to freely install apps of their choice).

Apple's arguments are also now being actively looked into by EU regulators. Last month the Competition Commission announced it's investigating Apple's iOS store (and Apple Pay) -- saying a preliminary probe of the store had identified concerns related to conditions and restrictions applied by the tech giant.

Specifically vis-à-vis the App Store, the Commission said it's looking at Apple’s mandatory requirement that developers use its proprietary in-app purchase system, and at restrictions it applies on the ability of developers to inform iPhone and iPad users of alternative cheaper purchasing possibilities outside of the App Store.

The investigation by EU regulators is just the latest in a series of major big tech antitrust probes under the bloc's current competition chief, Margrethe Vestager -- who has also been digging into Amazon and Facebook business practices in recent years, as well as hitting Google with a series of record-breaking antitrust fines.

Over in the U.S., meanwhile, lawmakers are also actively grappling with competition concerns that have long been attached to a number of tech giants -- and are being exacerbated by the pandemic concentrating platform power. Apple is one of the tech giants of concern, though not, seemingly, top of U.S. lawmakers' target list.

Yesterday, a hearing of the House Antitrust Subcommittee took testimony from four big tech CEOs: Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Apple's Tim Cook, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai -- with Pichai, Bezos and Zuckerberg getting the most questions from lawmakers.

Cook did face a number of questions around how the company operates the App Store, though -- including about the commission it charges developers and a specific line of enquiry on why it had removed rival screen time apps. Asked whether Apple could ever raise its 30% take on app subscriptions Cook sought to sidestep the question, saying the fee had remained unchanged since the launch of the store.

He then followed up by arguing Apple faces huge competition for developers -- citing alternatives platforms such as Windows and Xbox as also fiercely vying for developers, and likening the competition to attract developers as akin to "a street fight for market share."

The contention from complainants like Spotify and Telegram is that Cook's claim of Apple facing fierce competition for developers' wares, from its position as the world's second largest smartphone OS by market share, does not stand up to scrutiny. But it'll be up to EU regulators to determine how to define the market for smartphone apps and, flowing from that, whether they identify harm or not.