Apple’s Tight Grip on iMessage Spurs Fresh Calls for an Antitrust Probe

The US Department of Justice has got mail: A coalition of more than a dozen tech advocacy groups wrote to the agency today calling on it to launch an investigation into allegedly anticompetitive behavior by Apple.

The letter says that Apple’s recent blocking of Beeper, which reverse engineered iMessage to allow compatibility with Android phones, is another example of Apple “abusing its power to stifle competition and protect its famed ‘walled garden.’” It was sent by the Tech Oversight Project, which campaigns for tougher tech regulation.

A second letter was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday by Demand Progress, which works on internet-related civil liberties, asking it to launch its own Apple probe. More than a dozen other progressive advocacy groups cosigned the two letters, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Economic Liberties Project, and Fight for the Future.

The Department of Justice has been reported to be investigating Apple over antitrust concerns since at least 2020. Tech Oversight Project’s letter to the DOJ urged it to accelerate that work and file an antitrust suit against Apple, pointing to what it called a “long, ongoing history of anticompetitive behavior, including favoring its own products on its devices, unfair policies for third-party apps and control of the App Store marketplace, and using its dominance to crush smaller competitors.” Bloomberg reported earlier in December that an EU antitrust investigation could make an enforcement decision against Apple over its control of the app store in early 2024.

The letter to the DOJ also cited the recent shutdown of Beeper Mini and prior complaints by Tile, maker of a tracking device, that its product’s functionality was affected by Apple when the iPhone maker launched its own AirTag trackers.

In its own letter, Demand Progress, which claims more than a million members, appealed to Dick Durbin, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Amy Klobuchar, chair of that group’s subcommittee on antitrust, to call for a public hearing and investigation into Apple’s practices, including its strategy of keeping iMessage exclusive to its own devices.

“Apple is attempting to squash efforts to streamline messaging between Apple and Android devices,” the letter reads. It cites accusations that by making messages from people without iPhones appear in green bubbles, Apple exploits peer pressure, especially on teenagers, to advance its own interests. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Pile On

The Apple-Beeper episode has triggered new pressure on Apple to loosen its tight control of its services. On December 17, four US senators wrote to the assistant attorney general of the DOJ’s antitrust division, Jonathan Kanter, calling for the department to investigate whether Apple potentially violated antitrust laws when it cut off some of Beeper’s functionality between Android messages and iMessage.

Beeper, a three-year-old Silicon Valley startup, launched its Beeper Mini app on December 5 to bridge the gap between SMS messaging on Android phones and Apple’s iMessage protocol on iPhones. The app runs on Android phones and initially cost $2 per month but is now offered for free.

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