Washington — Apple chief executive Tim Cook went on the offensive against efforts to regulate the App Store in a rare public speech on Tuesday, warning that legislation intended to improve competition could “undermine” the privacy and security protections on the company’s products.
The remarks amounted to Cook’s most visible efforts to date to fight legislation that would fundamentally loosen the iPhone maker’s grip on app downloads — forcing Apple to overhaul a key line of business. In the Washington, D.C., speech, Cook leveraged Apple’s image as a privacy-friendly tech giant, arguing that the proposals would allow app makers to circumvent the App Store’s privacy and security protections, leaving people with insecure apps or malware on their devices.
“Taking away a more secure option will leave users with less choice, not more,” he said.
For months Cook, Apple lobbyists and industry trade groups have made similar arguments in private phone calls and letters to Washington lawmakers and their staffs. But the CEO used his keynote speaking slot at a conference in Congress’s backyard to escalate the fight, bringing greater public attention to Apple’s attack on the legislation.
Cook’s argument stood in contrast to a speech that Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan gave a day earlier at the same conference. Khan argued for a paradigm shift in how regulators approach privacy, saying that the FTC would assess data privacy issues through both consumer protection and competition lenses.
Tech companies are growing increasingly wary of efforts in Congress to pass legislation to expand competition in Silicon Valley, after a bipartisan investigation in 2020 concluded that Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google engaged in anti-competitive, monopoly-style 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 Federal Trade Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Department of Justice declined to comment.
Senators have advanced two bills — The American Innovation and Choice Online Act and The Open App Markets Act — that could force major changes to Apple’s App Store. European Union officials also recently reached an agreement on the Digital Markets Act, new rules that seek to ensure tech gatekeepers do not give their services a leg up over rivals. Cook’s remarks come as the company faces antitrust scrutiny from regulators both in the United States and in Europe, and as it is embroiled in legal battles with app developers, including the maker of Fortnite, Epic Games.
For years, Apple has attempted to distance itself from the scandals embroiling its tech industry peers by burnishing its reputation on privacy, touting its investments in encryption and tools that have forced greater transparency around developers’ data collection. Cook cashed in on those efforts in Tuesday’s speech, calling on privacy professionals at the conference to join Apple in its fight against competition legislation. He aimed to illustrate the battles over tech regulation as a debate over fundamental human rights, arguing that people cannot accept a loss of privacy.
“It is privacy that lets us be and become ourselves without being afraid that our every move will be seen, recorded or leaked,” he said.
Cook said that Apple is in favor of some privacy regulation, voicing support for Europe’s privacy regulations and reiterating that the company continues to call for “a strong, comprehensive” privacy law in the United States. Years-long efforts on Capitol Hill to reach an agreement on privacy legislation have largely fizzled.
During congressional debates on the legislation, Apple’s privacy and security arguments have resonated with some lawmakers, particularly those hailing from its California home state.
But some security experts have pushed back on Apple’s claims that the legislation would put consumers’ privacy and security at risk. This includes the technologist Bruce Schneier, who has argued that tech giants’ grip on app stores sometimes prevents the distribution of security enhancing tools, and has said that company arguments are “motivated by their own self-interest and not the public interest.”
A Washington Post review last year found that scams are hiding in plain sight in the App Store. Of the 1,000 highest-grossing apps on the App Store, nearly 2% are scams, the Post reported.