Apple CEO Tim Cook is fighting efforts to regulate the App Store in privacy

Apple CEO Tim Cook went on the offensive against efforts to regulate the App Store in a rare public speech on Tuesday, warning that proposed legislation to improve competition could “undermine” privacy and security protection on the company’s products.

The remarks were in line with Cook’s most visible efforts to date to combat legislation that would fundamentally loosen the iPhone maker’s grip on app downloads – forcing Apple to revise a key industry. In his speech in Washington, DC, Cook exploited Apple’s image as a privacy-friendly technology giant, arguing that the proposals would allow app makers to bypass the App Store’s privacy and security protections and leave people with insecure apps or malware on their devices.

“Removing a more secure option will leave users with fewer choices, no more,” he said.

Apple avoided the Washington techlash for years. Now it’s in the center of the bull’s eye.

For months, Cook, Apple lobbyists and industry groups have been making similar arguments in private phone calls and letters to Washington lawmakers and their staff. But the CEO used his keynote speech at a conference in the backyard of Congress to escalate the fight and brought greater public attention to Apple’s attacks on the law.

Cook’s argument was in contrast to a speech given by the President of the Federal Trade Commission, Lina Khan, a day earlier at the same conference. Khan argued for a paradigm shift in how regulators approach privacy, saying the FTC would assess data protection issues through both consumer protection and competition lenses.

FTC President Lina Khan calls for a paradigm shift for data protection

Technology companies are becoming increasingly wary of congressional efforts to pass legislation to expand competition in Silicon Valley, after a bipartisan survey in 2020 concluded that Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google engaged in antitrust tactics. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Apple declined to comment on whether Cook had scheduled meetings with Biden administration officials or regulators while in Washington. The White House and the FTC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Ministry of Justice declined to comment.

Senators have tabled two bills – The American Innovation and Choice Online Act and The Open App Markets Act – which could force major changes in Apple’s App Store. EU officials also recently reached agreement on the Digital Markets Act, new rules that seek to ensure that technology gatekeepers do not give their services a leg up over rivals. Cook’s remarks come as the company faces antitrust control from regulators in both the U.S. and Europe, and as it engages in legal battles with app developers, including Fortnite maker Epic Games.

For years, Apple has sought to distance itself from the scandals involving its technology peers by polishing its reputation for privacy, by asserting its investment in encryption and tools that have forced greater transparency around developers’ data collection. Cook cashed in on those efforts in Tuesday’s speech, urging privacy professionals at the conference to join Apple in their fight against competition law. He aimed to illustrate the struggles of tech regulation as a debate on fundamental human rights, arguing that people can not accept a loss of privacy.

“It’s privacy that lets us be and become ourselves without being afraid that all our movements will be seen, recorded or leaked,” he said.

Cook said Apple was in favor of some privacy protections, and expressed support for Europe’s privacy rules, and reiterated that the company continues to call for “strong, comprehensive” privacy laws in the United States. Years of efforts on Capitol Hill to reach an agreement on privacy laws have largely been out of order.

During congressional debates on the legislation, Apple’s arguments for privacy and security have resonated with some lawmakers, especially those coming from its home state of California.

But some security experts have pushed back on Apple’s claims that the legislation would jeopardize consumer privacy and security. This includes technologist Bruce Schneier, who has argued that tech giants’ grips on app stores sometimes prevent the distribution of security-enhancing tools, and has said the company’s arguments are “motivated by their own interest and not the public interest.”

A review by the Washington Post last year showed that fraud is hiding in the App Store. Of the 1,000 highest-earning apps in the App Store, nearly 2 percent are scams, The Post reported.

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