Apple’s Crackdown on Parental Control Apps: What You Need to Know

April 29, 2019, 8:17 PM UTC

Apple is in the middle of a new controversy with app developers.

Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that Apple had removed 11 of the 17 most popular parental control apps from its App Store in recent weeks. The affected app developers told The Times that Apple removed the apps because they had features, like the ability for parents to track child phone usage and block children from accessing sites and apps, that compete with similar functions in Apple’s own Screen Time app.

Apple confirmed to the newspaper that it removed the apps but said it did so because they violated user privacy. Apple senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller told The Times Apple “acted extremely responsibly.” The developers, meanwhile, said Apple is hurting their livelihood.

Read on for a look at how the dispute started, how Apple responded, and what could happen next.

What Is Screen Time?

To understand this debate, a little history about Apple’s Screen Time app.

Screen Time debuted in iOS 12, the latest Apple mobile operating system version the company released in September. Screen Time tells you how much time you spend on your iPhone using apps and websites, and how your use changes over time. Parents can also use Screen Time to monitor how their kids are using their iPhones or iPads, and see how much time they spend on apps and websites.

Most importantly for parents, Screen Time comes with a feature that lets users turn off an app or website access, decide when iPhones should turn off so kids can concentrate on other things, like schoolwork or sleep, and set a password so children can’t change those settings on their own.

What App Developers Say

The NYT report discussed Apple’s takedowns with several parental control app developers that built services similar to Screen Time long before Apple created its app. Their apps generally had the same features as Screen Time, including the ability to track a child’s iPhone behavior and limit the child’s access to apps and websites.

Apple removed one of those apps, OurPact, from the App Store in February without warning, according to The Times. Another company, Mobicip, told The Times that Apple wrote a letter to the company in January requesting the removal of features inside its app.

The problem, however, was that Apple didn’t say which features need removing—even after requests by Mobicip for information. Apple eventually removed the app from its mobile marketplace.

Mobicip had been in the App Store for years, and Apple had never complained about its features before then, the company’s CEO Suren Ramasubbu told The Times.

“Suddenly we don’t have a business anymore,” he said.

In total, Apple removed 11 of 17 parental control apps in the last several months, the NYT article said. Most of the developers said Apple removed their apps to boost Screen Time.

What Apple Says

Apple responded to The Times report in a statement Sunday and confirmed that it removed the apps from the App Store. The company denied claims that it did so to hurt competitors.

“Contrary to what The New York Times reported over the weekend, this isn’t a matter of competition,” Apple said. “It’s a matter of security.”

In its statement, Apple said that it became aware at some point in the past year of some parental control apps using a technology called Mobile Device Management (MDM). A popular tool in the business world, MDM lets a third-party control and analyze phone usage. In the corporate world, it’s used by a company’s IT managers to send updates to all employee phones, track locations, and in some cases, remove data.

Apple alleged that some of the parental control apps it removed from the App Store had MDM systems running in them that would track children and let parents remotely control devices through the program. Apple said the feature violates the App Store guidelines that govern what is allowed.

“When we found out about these guideline violations, we communicated these violations to the app developers, giving them 30 days to submit an updated app to avoid availability interruption in the App Store,” Apple said. “Several developers released updates to bring their apps in line with these policies. Those that didn’t were removed from the App Store.”

Several developers didn’t denied using MDM in their apps. They did, however, say that Apple failed to raise a fuss about the feature until recently.

What’s Next?

This issue may not go away so quickly.

Last week, according to the NYT, two other affected parental control app developers—Qustodio and Kidslox—filed a complaint with the European Union’s competition watchdog, the European Commission, over Apple removing their apps. That’s the same agency that filed a claim against Apple in 2016 over the iPhone maker’s European tax strategy. Apple forked over billions of dollars in back taxes held in escrow pending the case’s completion.

The European Commission is also the agency Spotify complained to in March over Apple’s App Store rules on revenue sharing with developers. Spotify alleged that Apple’s 30% cut of in-app purchases, including a Spotify music-streaming subscription, is unfair. The EC hasn’t decided the Spotify complaint.

Given those cases and the European Commission’s typical timeline on complaints, it could months, if not years, for any resolution between Apple and the developers.

Meanwhile, if you’re in the market for a parental control app, but don’t want to use Screen Time, there are still a few options available, including Balance Screen Time and Verizon Smart Family.

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