The complaint alleges that Apple is using the guise of protecting privacy to stifle competition by going beyond the EU’s data protection laws © David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Apple has been hit with an antitrust complaint in France over its plans to restrict trackers used for mobile advertising, one of the first legal actions alleging that big tech groups are using privacy arguments to abuse their market power.

A coalition of trade groups in online advertising — spanning publishers, app makers, adtech groups and social media platforms — has asked France’s competition authority to stop Apple applying privacy controls early next year that would cripple targeted advertising on iPhones.

Under Apple’s plans, many apps will need to explicitly ask users whether they agree to their behaviour being tracked across other apps and websites, a step that is likely to severely reduce access to the identifiers, known as IDFAs, that are the backbone of mobile advertising. 

The complaint to the French Competition Authority alleges that Apple is using the guise of protecting privacy to stifle competition by going beyond the EU’s data protection laws. The complainants argue Apple will hold itself to a lower standard and boost its own revenues, both from app search advertising and from pushing businesses to a subscription model, from which it takes a cut of payments. 

Damien Geradin, a lawyer at Geradin Partners who is representing the complainants, said: “While privacy matters and needs to be protected, privacy rhetoric cannot be used as a fig leaf to justify anti-competitive practices that will destroy the mobile ad ecosystem while benefiting Apple.”

Apple said it believed privacy was a “fundamental human right” and that the controls would not prohibit tracking. “A user’s data belongs to them and they should get to decide whether to share their data and with whom,” the company said. “These rules apply equally to all developers — including Apple — and we have received strong support from regulators and privacy advocates.”

The coalition bringing the complaint includes the digital advertising trade body IAB France, whose board includes representatives from LinkedIn, Google and Le Monde; the Mobile Marketing Association France, whose advisory board includes members from Publicis and Facebook; and Udecam and SRI, who act for media buyers and sellers respectively.

Trade bodies consult members when pursuing legal complaints but not all members are necessarily supportive.

Should the French competition watchdog take up the request for so-called “interim measures”, it could force Apple to negotiate with app makers or stop the changes. The enforcement actions would only apply to France but could spur complaints to other competition authorities. 

A spokesperson for the French Competition Authority confirmed that it had received the complaint and promised to “examine it with great attention given that it pertains to a sector that it follows closely”.

Facebook has been particularly vocal in criticising the Apple IDFA changes. David Fischer, Facebook’s chief revenue officer, has described it as part of an “assault” on the model of personalised advertising, with severe implications for ad-reliant businesses. 

Nicolas Rieul, president of IAB France, cast the Apple moves as part of a “long-term strategy” to strengthen its search advertising businesses, which gives app makers paid promotion within the Apple app store. “If they do it, the impact will be massive,” Mr Rieul said.

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