April 17, 2021

Apple accused of breaching EU privacy law by French start-up group

Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers a keynote during the European Union’s privacy conference at the EU Parliament in Brussels, Belgium October 24, 2018.

Yves Herman | Reuters

LONDON — France Digitale, a French start-up lobby group, filed a complaint against Apple with the nation’s privacy regulator, arguing that the iPhone maker’s iOS 14 mobile operating system may be in breach of European Union rules.

The campaign group, which has around 2,000 members, filed a seven-page complaint, seen by CNBC, with the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés on Tuesday.

It argues that Apple may be collecting user data for ad tracking services without explicitly asking permission, and it is calling on the CNIL to investigate. Specifically, it thinks that Apple has its “Personalized Ads” option on by default on iPhones with iOS 14 installed. Apple did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.

“Our suspicion is that this is a very severe breach of our privacy regulations,” France Digitale CEO Nicolas Brien told CNBC, adding that Apple could be breaching Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation and the Electronic Privacy Directive, also known as the e-Privacy directive.

“Our problem here is that you don’t get the choice to consent,” said Brien. “It’s automatically on and that’s strictly forbidden by GDPR and e-Privacy.”

France Digitale has also criticized Apple for its App Store practices in recent weeks, saying that they harm start-ups.

Apple only lets developers release iPhone and iPad apps through its iOS smartphone platform. The firm has a rigorous approval process for iOS apps and has faced criticism about fees of up to 30% which it charges on in-app transactions.

Last year, the EU Commission launched antitrust investigations into Apple’s App Store rules and its Apple Pay mobile wallet. Epic Games, creator of the popular video game Fortnite, has been particularly vocal in its criticism of Apple. At the time, Apple said it was “disappointing” that the European Commission is listening to “baseless complaints” from a small number of businesses.

The U.K.’s competition regulator launched its own antitrust investigation into Apple on March 4. The Competition and Markets Authority said it would investigate Apple over complaints from software developers about the tech giant’s App Store.

Apple said it would work with the CMA to address its concerns. “We believe in thriving and competitive markets where any great idea can flourish,” a spokesperson for the company said earlier this month.

Different rules for Big Tech?

While Europe is clamping down on America’s Big Tech firms, Brien still thinks companies like Apple are getting a relatively easy ride.

He claims that Apple is not under the same level of privacy scrutiny as French start-ups and other small companies.

“We are getting investigated all the time,” said Brien. “We need that to stop. Tech regulations should not be primarily aimed at start-ups.”

A spokesperson for the CNIL confirmed to CNBC that it had received the complaint and that it planned to investigate.

Brien said he thinks privacy regulators in other countries may also investigate Apple when they learn about the feature France Digitale has taken issue with.

“This is something huge and we do believe it’s an extremely important case,” he said. “We’re talking here about the most valuable tech company and if they are not playing by the rules, who else has got to be?”

Apple has positioned itself as a company that takes privacy more seriously than Silicon Valley neighbors Google and Facebook.

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