EU telecoms regulators examine whether app stores restrict internet access

EU telecoms regulators are looking into how app stores might restrict access to the internet. [PxHere]

European telecoms regulators are investigating whether app stores restrict internet access by limiting their users’ choice of content, the chair of the umbrella group of EU watchdogs said on Wednesday (14 March).

The regulators are starting to examine whether “the gatekeeper role of app stores” like Google and Apple’s might conflict with the EU’s law guaranteeing net neutrality, Johannes Gungl, the head of the BEREC group, said at a meeting in Brussels.

Europe’s net neutrality legislation came into effect in 2016 and prevents internet service providers from slowing down or providing faster access to certain traffic on their networks.

Gungl said app stores and operating systems that run on devices like mobile phones and computers are “a kind of black spot” for telecoms regulators. While app stores’ control over internet access is still “not too concerning”, Gungl recommended that telecoms regulators should investigate the issue further.

BEREC is currently analysing the effects of the net neutrality law and will submit a report to the European Commission next year that may recommend changes to the way the legislation is applied.

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Sparks flew at a public discussion over net neutrality at one of the world’s biggest tech conferences on Monday (27 February), as EU tech chief Andrus Ansip defended the bloc’s two-year-old legislation while sharing a stage with the American regulator who just repealed a similar US law.

The start of the group’s review of app stores comes as European regulators are increasing pressure on tech giants’ business contracts with developers of apps.

Also on Wednesday, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said France will sue Google and Apple over their “abusive” contracts with developers who sell their software through the Google and Apple app stores. He accused the US-based giants of harming startups.

Separately from BEREC’s inquiry, the European Commission is getting ready to propose new legislation next month that will force app stores and online search engines to be more transparent about how they rank and display results.

But Gungl warned that national telecoms regulators may come up against difficulties to investigate whether tech companies restrict internet access through their app stores. The authorities’ roles are generally limited to policing telecoms operators and media companies, leaving many services from technology firms like Google and Apple out of their control.

He described a report published last month by France’s telecoms regulator ARCEP as a “contribution to start discussion” within the EU-level group over whether net neutrality legislation should also apply to app stores.

ARCEP’s report referred to devices like smartphones, tablets and computers as the “weak link” in European regulators’ efforts to guarantee open access to the internet, since the net neutrality legislation targets operators but not devices.

“Internet openness will be challenged by devices if it is impossible to circumvent app stores tied to the operating system since, when choosing the apps they want to download, users can only view their choices through the prism of the search engine included in the store,” the French report said.

Last October, BEREC published its own report recommending that European telecoms regulators should monitor whether devices will be a threat to open internet access in the future, even though that “might appear rather hypothetical at this stage”.

The BEREC report acknowledged that if companies that create operating systems, such as Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS, have “sufficient market power”, the firms “could have in theory a financial interest in enabling a less open use of the Internet”, for example, by filtering search results to show services with which they have commercial deals.

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