Nordic publishing giant Schibsted became one of 20 new members of the recently formed Coalition for App Fairness earlier this month.
The group was founded in September by a group of influential app publishers including Fortnite owner Epic Games, online dating company Match Group and streaming platforms Spotify and Deezer. Its stated aim is to apply pressure on app store owners — but principally Apple — to stop what it alleges are uncompetitive practices, such as charging publishers a 30% fee for in-app purchases.
“What is really apparent now is that these gatekeepers, such as Apple, are really becoming private regulators,” said Petra Wikström, Schibsted director of public policy.
Wikström explained why the Oslo-headquartered publisher — which owns newspapers including VG, Aftenposten, Bergens Tidende — joined the Coalition, the App Store concerns that are specific to news publishers and what Schibsted hopes can be achieved by applying pressure on Apple. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Why did Schibsted join the Coalition?
We have been working on this issue with Apple and the App Store conditions for some time now
When Spotify filed the complaint [with EU antitrust regulators against Apple] we supported them publicly with articles in our local newspapers.
The problem is the case with Spotify is a bit different from the problems we experience with Apple. Obviously, the fact that we need to pay 30% [revenue share on in-app purchases] — which is a very high fee, which is non-negotiable — [is the same].
But we have particular issues as publishers, which we are not sure many others have, which relates to access to data in particular. This is a very important issue to us.
What problems do you have accessing data?
When we have an app in the App Store and want to sell something within the app — an in-app purchase — Apple requires us to use their in-app payment system. Before we could use a credit card or other [payment services like] Klarna.
Apple started to force this some years back. What we then realized is some of our newspapers implemented in-app purchases because they were afraid of being blocked from the App Store — that was the threat. For our main newspapers in Sweden and Norway, which are the biggest newspapers in both countries, not being on the App Store is not an option.
Also in the Nordics … just above 50% of everyone with a smartphone has an iPhone, which makes Apple much bigger here than in most other markets.
This is the differentiating factor [for newspapers]: The person who buys a subscription becomes a customer of Apple. What that means in practice is we don’t get any data about that customer. We don’t know who it is, where they live … If they call our customer service, we can’t identify them.
For a newspaper, losing the customer relationship with your reader is really quite problematic.
If somebody buys a subscription via the website we don’t have this problem. There we can control it.
Have you raised this issue with Apple?
We have raised it. The problem is that Apple is extremely difficult to discuss with. The whole relationship is extremely hard.
Did you have any reservations about joining the Coalition? Over fear of retaliation or otherwise?
We never thought about that in that sense. We are so active on this issue anyway — we have spoken about it at length with different decision makers. Joining the Coalition is not something we would be afraid of doing. I think Apple is quite aware of our views anyway.
Does the Coalition only focus on Apple? Will it cover Google and Microsoft?
Apple is the reason for it being created, but I think definitely Google is going to be [a focus.]
Now with Google coming out and saying … in a blog post published some weeks ago: We will also start taking 30% and require this, that and the other — of course it’s something we need to look at. We haven’t really seen enough of Google’s behavior yet, at least from Schibsted’s point of view.
For us, Google is extremely important. If Google starts enforcing similar fees then that would be the end of it for our app business.
What realistically do you hope the Coalition will be able to achieve?
You have several big companies that have come together that have similar problems. Many of these companies have filed competition cases — Epic in the U.S., Spotify in the EU and so on — it’s just adding to that pressure.
[Competition cases] take forever. Ultimately the best thing would be to actually be able to agree with Apple, to be able to negotiate with them and be able to have the fruitful and functional business relationship that we have with others.
We can’t at the moment. You can’t negotiate with them. If they do feel pressured, that might hopefully lead to some kind of opening
Are Apple’s forthcoming app privacy changes also a concern for Schibsted?
It’s a very, very big concern. What is really apparent now is that these gatekeepers such as Apple are really becoming private regulators. They are the ones who are setting the rules, they are the ones going beyond the GDPR or international data protection authority guidelines. They are the ones who decide how we can collect data, what language we should use when we communicate with our customers.
Rules and laws are set by democratically chosen institutions and they have authorities that enforce those rules. It should not be a private company like Apple that comes with their own rules and enforces those rules.
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