POLITICS

Arizona Bill Offers Major Challenge To Big Tech's Monopoly Power

The GOP-sponsored bill has spurred opposition from an unusual political alignment -- Democrats, big tech and conservative groups.

Arizona has emerged as a battleground between corporate and antitrust forces, with the state Legislature considering a measure that would loosen Apple and Google’s grip on app sales.

The fight is creating strange bedfellows, with big tech companies, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and some Democrats lining up against the Republican-sponsored bill.

House Bill 2005 would allow Arizona-based developers to use their own in-app payment systems, effectively circumventing Apple’s App Store rules that give the tech giant a 15% to 30% cut of every transaction made there.

Apple isn’t alone in the practice. Most major platforms also take a cut of some sort. App stores run by Google, Microsoft and Samsung all take a 30% commission, with some falling to 15% in certain instances.

In 2020, that cut amounted to a combined $33 billion for Google and Apple, according to data provided to The New York Times Times by the app analytics firm Sensor Tower.

The bill’s sponsors, GOP state Reps. Regina Cobb and Leo Biasiucci, frame it as a means to boost Arizona’s tech scene ― while also poking big tech right in the eye. 

“Apple and Google have a monopoly on how you download apps to your phone,” the two wrote in an op-ed for the Arizona Capitol Times late last month. “You have to use their system and their payment processor, and then they tax you for it. Small app developers have to absorb the cost and struggle to survive or pass the tax onto their consumers.” 

“But we’re ready to change that,” they continued. “We are taking action now to challenge Big Tech’s monopoly and make Arizona a better place for every app user and app developer.”

Republican state Reps. Leo Biasiucci and Regina Cobb have sponsored a bill to would allow Arizona-based developers to use the
Republican state Reps. Leo Biasiucci and Regina Cobb have sponsored a bill to would allow Arizona-based developers to use their own in-app payment systems, loosening Apple and Google's grip on app sales. 

The bill passed out of a House committee last month on a 7-6 vote, with Democrats providing the bulk of the opposition. All but two Republicans voted for it, and all but one Democrat voted against it. 

The measure faces two more votes in the House, with one scheduled this week, before it could head to the state Senate and, if approved in that chamber, to the desk of Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. So far, Ducey hasn’t commented on the bill.

In a clear sign of the legislation’s potential impact on big tech, Apple and Google have geared up to oppose it, hiring lobbyists to press the case against it with lawmakers. 

Apple Chief Compliance Officer Kyle Andeer told state legislators this week that the company should be free to conduct business as it sees fit in a marketplace of its own creation.

“This bill tells Apple it cannot use its own checkout lane and collect a commission in the store we built,” he said.

“This would allow billion-dollar developers to take all of the App Store’s value for free, even if they’re selling digital goods, even if they’re making millions or billions of dollars doing it,” he added. “The bill is a government mandate that Apple give away the App Store.”

Also lining up against the measure are high-powered conservative groups such as the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Tax Reform and ALEC, which is known for pushing conservative policies nationwide and writing model legislation for lawmakers to use. 

ALEC recently wrote to legislators in Arizona and North Dakota, where similar legislation has been proposed, urging them to oppose the bill or risk “interfering with the free market” and “hampering the innovation economy.”

On the other side, a group of developers has united under the banner of The Coalition for App Fairness to promote the bill. Its members include Spotify, Match Group and Epic Games, developer of the massively popular game Fortnite. Epic sued Apple last year after getting kicked off the App Store for violating the company’s in-app payment guidelines.

Across the country and in Congress, the Democratic Party has long been friendlier to big tech than the GOP. That has been shifting, though, as concerns have grown about the companies’ business practices and potential noncompliance with antitrust laws.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) last year led a comprehensive investigation into competition in the digital marketplace and found it severely wanting. He’s vowed to move forward with antitrust legislation as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee.

Republican lawmakers in Georgia and North Dakota have introduced legislation similar to the Arizona bill, while Democrats are pushing similar measures in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Hawaii and New York. (The bill in North Dakota, which would have also forced Apple to allow third-party app stores, suffered a decisive defeat in the state Senate last month.)

The Arizona committee vote, however, underscored that many remain on the side of big tech.

“Democratic lawmakers are afraid of challenging Apple and Google, and don’t understand the problem of monopoly power,” said Matt Stoller, the director of research at the Washington-based American Economic Liberties Project. 

“A lot of them seem to think that this is just some business dispute, when in fact it is a matter of social justice and inequality, just within the commercial realm,” he said.

If HB2005 passes, developers could claw back millions of dollars from Apple and Google by relocating to the Grand Canyon State.

David Heinemeier Hansson is one of those developers. His email service, named Hey, nearly collapsed after running afoul of Apple’s rules after it launched last summer.

Apple rejected Hey from the App Store because the app didn’t allow users to sign up ― and pay ― for the service in the app itself, thereby giving Apple claim to 30% of Hey’s yearly $99 subscription fee. Only after an outraged Twitter thread from Heinemeier Hansson went viral did Apple relent. 

“We fought Apple tooth and nail on the 30% [commission], and as a rare exception managed to get them to back off our business,” he told HuffPost in an email. “But not until we’d spent 2 weeks in fear of losing our new business.”

“We’re still suffering under the regime,” he added. “Apple has banned us from telling customers that you can even sign up for our product. There’s a gag order in place that’ll see you kicked out of the App Store if you dare tell customers that you can sign up for our service on the web.” 

The free market depends on legislative guardrails that prevent monopolies from exploiting their outsized power and preying on smaller competitors. Software developer David Heinemeier Hansson

Notably, big fish in the app world, like Facebook and Uber, have negotiated special rates with Apple directly, often paying lower fees or using their own payment processing systems entirely. That option doesn’t readily exist for the vast majority of other developers.

So an app that generates billions in revenue may pay Apple nothing, while a lesser-known app that generates $2 million has to pay Apple $600,000 a year. That has a secondary effect of stifling competition: A company is unlikely to become the next Google or Apple if it’s giving 30% of its revenue away instead of putting that money back into its business, or using it to develop new products.

In addition to taking a commission, Apple also charges developers a $99 yearly fee to be able to create and submit apps. The payments generate an additional $2.7 billion a year for Apple, given its more than 28 million registered developers.

Apple justifies the fee as necessary to run the App Store at a high level. That includes reviewing apps and keeping malware at bay, and paying for the basic infrastructure ― servers, etc. ― that keeps the store running. 

For app developers, the issue isn’t just about the money, though that’s no small part of it. The fee also gets in the way of providing decent customer service, Heinemeier Hansson said.

With Apple handling all of the in-app payments, developers are unable to provide refunds, offer discounts or resolve billing issues. They can only shrug and tell customers to take it up with Apple. 

“The market is not going to correct itself,” he told legislators in North Dakota last month, before they voted down the App Store bill. “The free market depends on legislative guardrails that prevent monopolies from exploiting their outsized power and preying on smaller competitors.”

“When we were fighting for our survival and future over the stressful summer, whatever hope I had for congressional involvement seemed very far off,” he added. “If your house is on fire, and you call for help, it’s no good if the red engine arrives after daffodils have started growing where your house once was.”