Techdirt's think tank, the Copia Institute, is working with the Trust & Safety Professional Association and its sister organization, the Trust & Safety Foundation, to produce an ongoing series of case studies about content moderation decisions. These case studies are presented in a neutral fashion, not aiming to criticize or applaud any particular decision, but to highlight the many different challenges that content moderators face and the tradeoffs they result in. Find more case studies here on Techdirt and on the TSF website.

Content Moderation Case Study: Apple Blocks WordPress Updates In Dispute Over Non-Existent In-app Purchase (2020)

from the ok-landlord dept

Summary: Apple controls what apps get onto iPhone and iPads via its full control over the iOS App Store. Every app (and its updates) need to be reviewed by Apple staff before it’s allowed in the store -- and Apple puts in place its own rules for what is and what is not allowed.

One of those rules is that Apple takes a 30% cut of any sales. That fee has become somewhat controversial, especially among service providers who don’t rely on the App Store for discovery, but whose customers likely come on their own -- including Spotify and Epic Games. Spotify, in particular, has urged users to subscribe directly, to avoid having to pay the additional amount per month to cover Apple’s fees. In response, Apple forbade Spotify from even mentioning that it’s cheaper to subscribe outside of the App Store, which is now a central piece of an antitrust fight that is ongoing in the EU.

Perhaps because of all of this, Apple has had to make decisions about whether or not to allow apps in the App Store that seek to avoid paying Apple’s cut of the fees. In August of 2020, Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic, and the founder/lead developer of the WordPress content management system, announced that the iOS app for WordPress had been frozen by Apple. The given reason was that Apple believed that WordPress was trying to avoid the fees for in-app purchases.

This was the cause of much confusion, as many people noted that the app did not actually sell anything. While WordPress.com does offer paid hosting plans (and domain reselling), that was not a part of the WordPress app. However, as Mullenweg’s tweet showed, Apple was noting that because somewhere else in WordPress.com’s business, it sold things, that meant that WordPress had to pay it a 30% cut of those sales (even though they were outside of the app itself) in order to keep the app in the App Store.

Decisions to be made by Apple:

  • How thoroughly should the company be reviewing the business models of apps in the App Store to determine whether they can be included?
  • What actually constitutes an attempt to get around the App Store fee?
  • Will app developers take advantage of exceptions to the rules if Apple does not follow them closely?
  • Should the company allow alternative ways of getting apps on the phone outside of the App Store?
Questions and policy implications to consider:
  • When a company builds an entire device ecosystem, should it be able to set its own rules for what apps are allowed on the device?
  • Can content moderation decisions raise antitrust concerns?
  • Are there policy implications of a single entity reviewing what apps are allowed on a device?
Resolution: As this story got more attention, Apple apologized and restored the WordPress developer account. However, its statement on the matter implied that WordPress had “removed” an option in the app to pay for hosting plans:

We believe the issue with the WordPress app has been resolved. Since the developer removed the display of their service payment options from the app, it is now a free stand-alone app and does not have to offer in-app purchases. We have informed the developer and apologize for any confusion that we have caused.

But users of the app say it never had any in-app purchases at all. The only thing it had were descriptions of WordPress.com Premium offerings, but no way to buy them. Mullenweg said that, before going public, he had asked Apple if removing those mentions would restore the account, and Apple had said it would not.

The reinstatement appeared to take Mullenweg by surprise.

In January of 2021, Apple also moved to lower the cut it took for in-app payments from “small” developers (those making less than $1 million a year in annual sales) to 15%. It was also revealed that Apple quietly cut a special deal with Amazon to charge the retailer a 15% cut for Amazon’s Prime Video app.

Originally published on the Trust & Safety Foundation website.

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Filed Under: app store, content moderation, fees, in-app purchases, matt mullenweg, wordpress
Companies: apple, automattic


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  1. identicon
    Wade, 28 Apr 2021 @ 9:56pm

    Re:

    No, Apple should be free to unilaterally determine what to offer in its store. The issue is the Apple store is the only way for a typical consumer to find and install third-party apps. This means Apple is doing more than choosing what's in its store. It's a gatekeeper that chooses whether a business may or may not exist in the marketplace. An analogy would be if Google decides whether your business can appear in search results, or if the phone book decides whether you can advertise your business, or if your ISP blocks you from viewing the website of a competing ISP in your area. While there are certainly cases where Apple has, rightfully, taken malicious applications out of the store, there are also many cases where Apple has taken down applications specifically for competing with Apple. WordPress telling customers they can purchase a hosting plan through the WordPress website was such an affront to Apple's business model that Apple, without notice and without due process, paralyzed the ability for WordPress to conduct business with its own customers. I get the sense you don't want the government to interfere with how private businesses operate. I fully agree. But isn't Apple doing exactly that, interfering with how WordPress can operate? There is real harm happening to businesses and consumers when the threat of retaliation from Apple is ever present. The business I work for had its app taken down from the store because a spot check found the word "free" in a 2pt larger font size than the terms of conditions. All of which was visible on the same screen, no scrolling necessary to see all the details clearly and plainly. There are strict consequences for anyone that does not obey Apple's law.


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