EU antitrust head is meeting Tim Cook and others next week

The EU antitrust head, Margrethe Vestager, is next week scheduled to meet Tim Cook and other CEOs of big tech companies.

It comes at a time when Apple appears to be softening its opposition to antitrust issues, and preparing for a more cooperative relationship with competition authorities …

EU antitrust head meetings

Reuters reports that Vestager is meeting the CEOs and senior execs of five US tech companies during a visit to the country.

Margrethe Vestager will meet the chief executives of Apple, Alphabet, Broadcom and Nvidia in the United States next week, her communications advise said on Friday […] She will also meet OpenAI Chief Technology Officer Mira Murati and its Chief Strategy Officer Jason Kwon.

The meetings will focus on European digital regulation and competition policy.

No specifics have been discussed, but it’s likely that Vestager and Cook will discuss two reported plans by the Cupertino company, and whether these will be sufficient to satisfy the competition regulator.

Opening up the iPhone’s NFC chip to third-party apps

The near-field communications (NFC) chip in the iPhone and Apple Watch allows the devices to be used for contactless payments. However, only the Apple Wallet app is allowed access to the chip, meaning that banks and other financial institutions have to register their cards for Apple Pay, with the iPhone maker taking a small cut of transactions.

This has been viewed as anti-competitive, in that Apple gives its own Waller app an advantage not available to competing mobile wallet apps.

Reuters last month reported that the company has now offered to open up the chip to third-party apps.

Allowing third-party app stores

Antitrust regulators have long been investigating Apple’s exclusive control over the sale of third-party iPhone apps. Whether you’re a consumer wanting to buy an iPhone app, or a developer wanting to sell one, there’s only one place you can do so: the App Store.

Apple has complete control over which apps it allows into the App Store, and the company sets its own terms – including its 15% or 30% commission – which developers and consumers alike have to accept. Many regulators, including the European Union, consider this a breach of competition law.

The Digital Markets Act (DMA) specifically states that the App Store is covered by the law. This means that Apple must permit competition in the iPhone app market, and it’s most likely that the only way the company can fully comply with this legislation is to allow competing app stores on the iPhone. Apple must comply by April of this year.

The iPhone maker has been preparing for this for at least a year, and likely longer.

We probably won’t know what was said

It’s not impossible that Apple, the EU, or the two together will make an announcement following the meeting, confirming Apple’s plans to comply with European antitrust requirements. If Cook already knows what he plans to do, and Vestager gives the final sign-off during this meeting, then it could prompt a public announcement of what has already been agreed in private.

However, I’m not personally expecting this to be the case. The fact that Vestager is meeting with a number of other CEOs suggests that this is more of a general round of meetings to try to ensure that all parties are clear on what is expected – and where the companies get an opportunity to shoot their shot when it comes to pushing for weaker compliance measures.

So my bet is that the meetings take place, and that the most we see by way of a public announcement is a vague statement of warm words about helpful discussions.

In addition to EU antitrust actions, Apple is also facing App Store regulation in a range of other countries, including Japan and its home market of the US.

Photo: Apple

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Ben Lovejoy