Apple wins legal victory in France over app privacy changes

France’s competition regulator rejected a request from advertising companies and publishers to block Apple Inc.’s

AAPL -1.70%

plan to restrict tracking of people’s mobile app usage.

In a potential blow to smaller companies hoping to block the privacy initiatives of big tech rivals on antitrust grounds, the French regulator said on Wednesday that Apple’s plan to require apps to get user consent to tracking them “does not appear to be abusive. “

“We cannot intervene just because there could be a negative impact for companies on the ecosystem,” Isabelle de Silva, director of the French competition authority, said at a press conference. “At this stage, we have not found blatant examples of discrimination.”

However, the authority said it plans to conduct an in-depth investigation to determine whether Apple’s changes could be viewed as “self-preference” by imposing stricter rules on third-party applications than on itself. That investigation could extend into next year, de Silva said.

Wednesday’s decision removes one source of doubt about Apple’s plans, announced last year, to require apps on its smartphones and tablets to obtain user participation permission before collecting their advertising identifiers, unique strings of letters. and numbers that companies use to identify people in order to show them targeted ads and monitor the performance of ad campaigns.

Privacy advocates and regulators have generally praised measures like Apple’s, saying that consumers should have as much control as possible over how their data is collected and used. In recent years, a push toward greater online privacy has led to new laws in Europe and California. But companies in the online advertising ecosystem have said these changes put them at a competitive disadvantage.

The companies behind the complaint, filed last fall through a group of trade associations, had argued that few Apple users would agree to be tracked, making it harder for apps to make money from personalized ads and hurting companies that trade their way. sale.

Damien Geradin, the competition lawyer representing the coalition of industry groups, said the companies were disappointed with the French decision but satisfied that the authority would carry out an in-depth investigation. “Apple is not without its problems yet,” Geradin said.

Apple applauded the decision and said it would work with the authority on its investigation. “We strongly believe that user data belongs to them and that they must control when that data is shared and with whom,” said an Apple spokesman.

The French regulator’s decision comes as tech giants like Apple, Alphabet Inc.’s

Google, Inc.

and Facebook Inc.

They are coming under increasing scrutiny in Europe and the US, both on antitrust grounds for their treatment of smaller rivals, and for privacy reasons, for collecting personal information from users.

Wednesday’s decision is the first major to highlight how that push to protect user privacy may be at odds with regulators’ efforts to safeguard competition online. This is because one of the most popular business models in technology is to target advertising at people based on their online behavior, and smaller companies sometimes accuse the giants of using privacy as a pretext to hack. the data they need to do it.

Earlier this month, some companies complained that Google’s plan to stop supporting or using technology that tracks people’s web browsing behavior for advertising purposes would simply increase Google’s advertising monopoly because it already has a lot of data about them. users of their own properties.

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“We are seeing more and more competition questions around privacy and data protection,” de Silva said on Wednesday, adding that he had sought advice from France’s privacy regulator, which said it had endorsed Apple’s plans. as good for users and applied in a neutral way.

Ms De Silva said her authority could also investigate Google’s plan to remove tracking technology from its Chrome browser, in a similar way to the UK Markets and Competition Authority.

Facebook has also attacked Apple’s plan, arguing that it is an abuse of domain that would hurt smaller companies. But restricting Apple’s identifiers would also undermine a strength of Facebook’s business: how it collects data from mobile apps about what people do in the apps, what they search for, what they buy, and more.

The complaint that led to Wednesday’s decision centers on Apple’s decision to introduce its own language asking users to sign up, regardless of prompts already required by European privacy law.

The complaint also highlighted how Apple was still able to collect data on iPhone users through the use of Apple apps, giving the Cupertino, California company an unfair advantage over other apps when it sold targeted ads in its own App. Store. It is on this last point that the authority said it would continue investigating.

In his press conference, de Silva said that dominant companies have the right to set rules for their services, as long as those rules are not anti-competitive or unfairly applied.

“We will be very attentive,” de Silva said.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Sundar Pichai, Apple’s Tim Cook and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg spoke about their companies’ role in driving competition in their opening remarks before a House Antitrust Subcommittee. Photo: Mandel Ngan / Pool / AFP

Write to Sam Schechner at [email protected]

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