U.S. Department of Justice questions iPhone app makers in Apple antitrust probe

In an ongoing antitrust case against Apple, the United States Department of Justice has begun to reach out to iOS developers.

The report comes from Reuters today, which states that some app makers have begun to be contacted by the DOJ to find out how interactions with Apple typically go. In one instance, Suren Ramasubbu — the CEO of Mobicip — was reached out to in November of last year.

Ramasubbu’s app is a parental control app, similar to Apple’s newly launched Screen Time feature baked into iOS. Mobicip’s app was removed from the App Store last year for failure to meet App Store requirements, albeit temporarily. According to the report, Ramasubbu was contacted because of the app’s removal.

A source familiar with the Justice Department’s investigation said a handful of app developers had been contacted in what is the first indication of what officials are pursuing involving Apple since the investigation was revealed by Reuters in June.

U.S. President Donald Trump has criticized Apple’s Silicon Valley neighbors for other reasons, calling for closer scrutiny of social media companies and Google and accusing them of suppressing conservative voices online, without presenting any evidence.

Mobicip’s app made a return to the iOS App Store in October of last year. However, when it was removed from the digital storefront Apple said it was because the app violated App Store rules that tied directly to features tied into the app. The problem was that those features were approved and accepted before Apple rolled out Screen Time alongside iOS 12.

Reuters says that other app development companies that build parental control apps were on good terms with Apple up until the launch of Screen Time. Apple was removing these apps so much so that it had to actually release a statement on the matter, saying it was removing many parental control apps because they were using Mobile Device Management (MDM) technology to track devices. Apple argued that’s not what MDM was designed for, and, as such, was removing apps from the App Store for violating those rules.

Apple did not comment on the story from Reuters, but pointed to a statement on its website that reads:

Since 2016, we have removed over 1.4 million apps from the App Store because they have not been updated or don’t work on our most current operating systems.

Apple is absolutely not a stranger to antitrust cases of this nature. In May of last year, for instance, the European Union launched an antitrust investigation against Apple for its potentially anticompetitive conduct related to Apple Music, an argument raised by Spotify.

At this stage, it remains unknown what the next phase of the DOJ’s investigation will be, or what will ultimately be the decision reached. While Apple has plenty of reasons why it has removed apps in the past, the timing of the parental control apps seems suspect at best.

It will be interesting to see how it all settles at some point in the future.