Tile, the maker of Bluetooth trackers that help find lost keys and other items, is urging European regulators to open an investigation into Apple for alleged anticompetitive behavior.
“Apple has taken several steps to competitively disadvantage Tile, including by making it more difficult for consumers to use our products and services,” wrote Kirsten Daru, vice president and general counsel for Tile. “We encourage the Directorate-General to launch an inquiry into Apple’s anti-competitive behavior in Europe.” The letter has not previously been made public.
By sharing its letter publicly, Tile follows in the footsteps of Spotify, the Swedish music streaming service that filed an official complaint in Europe last year against Apple, alleging publicly that Apple’s pricing policies drive up costs for its competitors.
Tile and Spotify are among a small but growing group of companies breaking their silence on what they see as an abuse of power by large technology companies such as Apple. Tile and others see Europe as more fertile ground for possible action. In general, Europe’s regulators have been more aggressive than those of the United States in their investigations of the biggest players in tech for alleged anticompetitive behavior, and Tile is hoping to find a sympathetic ear to air its grievances.
Apple spokesman Fred Sainz said in an email that the company strenuously denies the allegations. “Last year, we introduced further privacy protections that safeguard user location data. Tile doesn’t like those decisions so instead of arguing the issue on its merits, they’ve instead decided to launch meritless attacks.”
One of Tile’s central allegations is that Apple last year took away the option for its users to choose to “always allow” their location data to be shared with a newly installed app. Tile’s app works best when its customers choose that option because the Tile smartphone app needs to know where it is when it was last in contact with a lost item, such as a set of keys left on a park bench.
At the same time, Apple automatically defaults customers into always allowing location data to be shared with Apple’s “Find My” feature, which replicates some of Tile’s features. Tile is concerned that the Find My service will be used by Apple to launch a rumored hardware product that mimics Tile’s small devices, instantly giving Apple an advantage in the market.
Sainz said the decision to revoke the option for “always allow” was based on privacy: “Stronger privacy protections may not be in every company’s business interest, but they are in the interest of every person with a smartphone. The changes we made in iOS ensure that users concerned about their data privacy can more easily understand and control when apps access their location. We will always stand behind decisions that provide users with greater transparency and control over their personal information.”
In response to the Tile letter, Apple said it didn’t modify its policies simply to gain a competitive advantage over Tile. In fact, they apply to other app developers.
In bringing its fight against Apple to Europe, Tile may have an easier time getting regulators to pay heed, but it won’t necessarily get the outcome it desires, said Randal C. Picker, an antitrust expert and professor at the University of Chicago Law School. “I could imagine the European Union finding abuse of a dominant position, but can they find a remedy that actually does something here? So far, I don’t think they have a track record of success on that,” he said, pointing to past cases against tech companies that have resulted in fines but haven’t changed competition behavior in the marketplace.
Maria Tsoni, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, acknowledged in an email that the commission had received the letter from Tile. “Our preliminary investigation into Apple’s alleged anti-competitive practices through its App Store policies is ongoing. We cannot comment on or predict its timing or outcome,” she wrote.
The commission was already investigating the allegations made by Spotify last year and it says it continues to monitor the market and takes note of the views of app developers that compete with Apple.
The Washington Post first reported in November that lawmakers were concerned that Apple was making changes to its policies in the name of privacy that also hurt competitors. The article mentioned how Tile was affected by Apple’s new “always allow” policy.
“I’m increasingly concerned about the use of privacy as a shield for anti-competitive conduct,” Rep. David N. Cicilline (R.I.), who serves as chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, said at the time. “There is a growing risk that without a strong privacy law in the United States, platforms will exploit their role as de facto private regulators by placing a thumb on the scale in their own favor.”
Rich Luchette, communications director for Cicilline, declined to comment on the letter from Tile.
“If privacy was Apple’s primary concern, however, it would subject FindMy to at least the same standards as competing apps,” Tile’s Daru wrote in the letter to Vestager.