Apple lawsuit raises questions around Big Tech's dominance

Epic Games, which makes the popular Fortnite game, is suing Apple for its monopoly over its app store. Epic argues Apple unfairly takes a significant portion of earnings from mobile apps, but the lawsuit also raises debate around how Big Tech should be regulated.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters
The Fortnite game is displayed on a smartphone in front of the Apple logo in this illustration, May 2, 2021. Epic Games, the maker of the popular game, is bringing a lawsuit against Apple that threatens to upend its iron control over its app store.

Epic Games faces an uphill legal battle against Apple in an antitrust trial starting Monday, and a defeat for the maker of Fortnite could make it harder for United States government regulators to pursue a similar case against the iPhone maker, legal experts said.

But win or lose at the trial, Epic, which has pursued an aggressive public relations campaign against Apple alongside its court pleadings, may have already accomplished a major goal: Drawing Apple squarely into the global debate over whether and how massive technology companies should be regulated.

Apple has mostly succeeded in staying out of the regulatory crosshairs by arguing that the iPhone is a niche product in a smartphone world dominated by Google’s Android operating system. But that argument has become harder to sustain with the number of iPhone users now exceeding 1 billion.

Epic alleges Apple has such a strong lock on those customers that the app store constitutes a distinct market for software developers over which Apple has monopoly power. Apple is abusing that power, Epic argues, by forcing developers to use Apple’s in-app payment systems – which charge commissions of up to 30% – and to submit to app-review guidelines the gaming company says discriminate against products that compete with Apple’s own.

Apple’s highly successful formula has helped turn the iPhone maker into one of the world’s most profitable companies, with a market value that now tops $2.2 trillion, as reported by The Associated Press. Privately held Epic is puny by comparison, with an estimated market value of $30 billion. Its aspirations to get bigger hinge in part on its plan to offer an alternative app store on the iPhone. The North Carolina company wants to break free of Apple’s commissions – last August, it added a payment system that bypassed Apple, which led to the Fortnite game being expelled from the app store.

Epic then sued Apple, prompting a courtroom drama that could shed new light on Apple’s management of its app store.

“It’s not a super-strong suit – I don’t think they are likely to win,” said Rebecca Haw Allensworth, a law professor at Vanderbilt Law School. “But it has already achieved a lot of its purpose, which is drawing attention to some of Apple’s practices that many developers see as abusive.”

Uphill battle

Epic’s arguments draw on major antitrust cases against Microsoft, Eastman Kodak, and American Express, but apply those precedents in new ways that have not been tested in U.S. courts, legal experts said.

For example, in arguing that iPhones are a software market unto themselves, Epic relies partly on a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision that rejected efforts by Kodak to force owners of its copying machines to use Kodak repair services.

Spencer Waller, a competition law professor at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, said the Kodak decision has had mixed success in subsequent cases.

“Plaintiffs are often unsuccessful because courts read Kodak narrowly at times,” Mr. Waller said.

Epic also faces hurdles in its contention that Apple’s in-app payment commissions are too high at 30% and could be as much as 10 times lower if market forces prevailed. American courts have been reluctant to dive into setting specific rates, in large part because unlike Europe, the prevailing interpretation of U.S. antitrust law does not consider a dominant firm charging high prices to be anticompetitive in itself.

Apple argues that whatever dominant position it may have in mobile software is an outgrowth of its creation of both the iPhone and a curated App Store that makes consumer comfortable.

“If you obtained a monopoly legitimately, you’re allowed to charge high prices,” said Randal Picker, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

Regardless of who wins at the trial expected to last three weeks before Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers in Oakland, California, the case is all-but-certain to be appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which last year reinforced the notion that dominant firms can charge high prices in a case involving Qualcomm Inc.

“Anticompetitive behavior is illegal under federal antitrust law. Hypercompetitive behavior is not,” Circuit Judge Consuelo Callahan wrote in the court’s opinion.

A federal antitrust official, speaking anonymously because the official was not authorized to speak to the media, said that an Epic loss would dim the chances of the government pursuing a similar lawsuit against Apple.

Brewing antitrust debate

Epic’s suit has ramped up pressure on Apple in the court of public opinion at a time when the iPhone maker’s business practices are facing fresh scrutiny around the world.

The U.S. Department of Justice is probing the company’s practices and regulators in the United Kingdom and Australia have opened probes or called for regulation.

European Union regulators last week accused Apple of distorting competition in the music streaming market, siding with Spotify in the zone’s first major anti-competition charge against Apple.

Epic advertisements decrying Apple for taking such a big cut of revenue are landing aside those headlines.

“The public can understand these issues, and in many ways understand them better than these judges who have never played a game in their life,” said Thomas Horton, a professor at the University of South Dakota School of Law.

The biggest threat to Apple’s app store is not lawsuits, but rather new laws regulating digital platforms, said Joel Mitnick, a partner at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft and a former U.S. Federal Trade Commission trial lawyer.

European lawmakers have already proposed legislation that could require Apple to allow developers to use their own payment systems, and consensus for new regulations is building in the U.S. as well.

Mr. Mitnick noted that concern about the power of big tech companies was bipartisan.

“If it were me, I would be looking at ways in which I could influence what might be inevitable changes to the rules under which [Apple is] going to operate,” he said.

This story was reported by Reuters. Additional reporting by Paresh Dave in Oakland, California.

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