August 3, 2009 | By Fred von Lohmann

FCC Opens Investigation on iPhone App Discrimination

The FCC has sent a trio of letters to Apple, AT&T, and Google seeking information about Apple's recent decision to block Google Voice apps from Apple's iPhone App Store. We're pleased that Chairman Genachowski's FCC is taking wireless competition seriously, and hope that it also looks into similar discriminatory treatment that has affected iPhone apps from others, such as Skype, Mozilla, and Sling Media.

When a dominant hardware platform vendor teams up with a dominant network services provider, and then selectively blocks or hobbles software applications on the platform, consumers should smell an anticompetitive rat. After all, if Microsoft had a veto right over every app that ran under Windows, and used that power to selectively ban competitors who "duplicate" functionality offered by Microsoft's own apps, we'd expect competition regulators to be up in arms. The combination of Apple's veto power over the iPhone apps market and AT&T's handset exclusivity arrangement with Apple should also have consumers and regulators on their guard. (In order to unshackle consumers from the technical restrictions built into the iPhone, EFF has petitioned the Copyright Office to get "jailbreaking" and "unlocking" out from under the DMCA.)

And Apple hasn't been shy about their anticompetitive motives, either. For example, Apple told the developer of GV Mobile (one of the Google Voice apps that got the axe last week) that his app was being removed for "duplicating features that the iPhone comes with." Apple has given the same anticompetitive rationale to other app developers in the past. And the company also continues to block Firefox and all other alternatives to its own web browser technology on the iPhone. Other applications, including Skype and Sling Player, are hobbled to work only on WiFi, while other bandwidth intensive video applications continue to work on-the-go over AT&T's 3G network (those who have jailbroken their iPhones can restore 3G access to Sling and Skype).

It would be nice if the FCC asked Apple and AT&T to justify all of these app rejections, and also throw its weight behind EFF's DMCA exemptions, which aim to restore some consumer choice for iPhone owners.

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