Senator Blumenthal’s App Store Bill: “Sideloading” Hate Apps Onto iPhones

Bill would guarantee iPhone access for hate, hoax, conspiracy, and disinformation apps

Remember after the January 6 insurrection when Apple removed the right-wing social network Parler from its App Store?

If you can believe this, a new bill being considered by the Senate in the coming days — written by Spotify, Epic Games, and Match Group as part of a lobbying campaign to pad their bottom lines — would guarantee hate apps like Parler, Gab, and Alex Jones’ Infowars guaranteed access to iPhones, regardless of their content moderation enforcement.

While I doubt this was the intent of Senator Richard Blumenthal, who wrote the bill, that would be the impact.

Let’s dive deeper to explain how Blumenthal’s bill would give hate apps free rein on iPhones.

Apple Removed Parler from the Apple App Store After January 6th

Earlier this month, researchers at the New America Foundation released a comprehensive report detailing how Parler was used to stoke the fires of the “Stop the Steal” movement leading up to January 6. They described Parler as:

a social media company whose very business model appeared to be predicated on the idea that it could grow its user base by promoting the discourses of the deplatformed and the disaffected among Trump’s followers.

January 6th insurrectionists used Parler

After Facebook started acting to remove “Stop the Steal” groups in November 2020, the Independent reported that the movement largely migrated to Parler. And on January 6 itself, the Capitol insurrectionists took to Parler to share video of their violent acts:

In the days after the insurrection, Apple notified Parler that it had:

…received numerous complaints regarding objectionable content in your Parler service, accusations that the Parler app was used to plan, coordinate, and facilitate the illegal activities in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021 that led (among other things) to loss of life, numerous injuries, and the destruction of property. The app also appears to continue to be used to plan and facilitate yet further illegal and dangerous activities.

The next day, Apple removed Parler from the App Store completely. And soon after, House Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney asked the FBI to investigate the role played by Parler in the January 6 attack on the Capitol:

Rep. Maloney’s letter requesting an FBI investigation of Parler’s role in January 6

A few months later, Apple allowed Parler back onto its App Store —but only after Parler agreed to institute content moderation standards and agree to block extreme content on its app.

Apple Has Banned Other Hateful and Dangerous Apps from the App Store

Apple is sometimes criticized for its app review process, but the company is pretty clear that it deliberately curates its App Store in order to provide a safe, friendly, and reliable service to iPhone owners — saying that for those who want to go beyond the rules of their curated store, “there is always the open Internet”:

Apple’s App Store Policies

And it’s used its content review process to keep other hate apps out of the App Store. In 2017 Apple banned Gab, a messaging service frequented by white nationalists. And in 2018 Apple banned Infowars, the conspiracy-fueled app from Sandy Hook denier Alex Jones.

Apple has used its App Store editorial control to ban other damaging apps too, including a “gay cure” app; a game called “Baby Shaker”; and a cocaine simulator called iSnort. And for years, policymakers have viewed Apple’s editorial control over its App Store as a good thing.

Blumenthal’s “Open App Markets Act”: Helping App Developers’ Billion-Dollar Balance Sheets

So you’d think that Blumenthal would value Apple’s editorial control. But strangely his App Store bill — which will be considered soon by the Senate Judiciary Committee — chucks it entirely overboard.

As I wrote last year, several billion-dollar-companies including Match Group, Epic Games, and Spotify have been agitating for years to reduce their Apple App Store commission fees. Blumenthal’s bill, the Open App Markets Act, helps these companies’ bottom line by allowing their apps to bypass the App Store (and Apple’s commissions) altogether.

As I explained to ZDNet shortly after the bill was introduced, Blumenthal’s bill would make smartphones dumber:

But apart from being a wealth transfer from one rich company (Apple) to several smaller-but-still-rich companies (Spotify and Epic Games) the bill mandates that Apple allow “sideloading” of apps directly onto an iPhone without having to go through the App Store — the exact risky practice that Blumenthal criticized just three years ago:

Looking more closely at the bill, Section 3(d)(2) of Blumenthal’s bill requires that Apple “shall allow and provide the readily accessible means for users of that operating system to…install third-party Apps or App Stores through means other than its own App Store.” In other words, sideloading:

Section 3(d)(2) of Blumenthal’s bill (S. 2710)

Section 3(f) goes even further, requiring that Apple provide all apps — including currently banned services like Gab and Infowars “access to operating system interfaces”:

Section 3(f) of Blumenthal’s bill (S. 2710)

Finally, Section 5(b)(1) gives banned app developers like Infowars and Gab the right to sue Apple for failing to allow sideloading of their apps:

Section 5(b)(1) of Blumenthal’s bill (S. 2710)

Should Blumenthal’s bill become law, Gab and Infowars would immediately use the sections above to sue Apple over denying their apps access to iPhones, and Apple would have no choice but to allow their apps to be “sideloaded” onto devices — rendering the whole value of its App Store review process worthless.

“Nondiscrimination” Bills Threaten Content Moderation that Keeps Platforms Healthy and Safe

We know from public opinion surveys that most people want more content moderation from platforms, to ensure healthy and safe online communities. Personally I want Apple’s App Store to discriminate against hate apps like Parler, Gab, and Infowars.

But bills like Blumenthal’s — much like similar “nondiscrimination” legislation by Sen. Amy Klobuchar — would erode platforms’ content moderation rights in the name of preventing “discrimination.”

Last week the public interest group Free Press warned that Klobuchar’s similar bill could:

require platforms to host hate speech and other harmful content targeting Black and Brown people, the LGBTQIA+ community, women, immigrants, Indigenous people and other targeted populations. It opens the door to arguments that covered platforms are unlawfully discriminating against hate-and-disinformation purveyors by taking them down.

The same is true of Blumenthal’s app store bill.

Democratic Senator Alex Padilla said that Klobuchar’s bill “may hamper the efforts of platforms to address the spread of hate speech and misinformation and disinformation efforts online that have caused so many recent problems for our democracy”:

The same is true of Blumenthal’s app store bill.

In fact, Republican Senator Ted Cruz — who opposed certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory — expressed support for Klobuchar’s bill for the very reason that it would make iPhones, YouTube, Google Search, and Amazon Web Services anything-goes zones for hate speech.

Blumenthal’s bill will have the same exact impact on content moderation as Klobuchar’sallowing apps to bypass Apple’s App Store rules by sideloading their hate, hoaxes, and disinformation directly onto consumers’ iPhones.

Democrats Should Fight Hate Instead of Helping Pad Spotify and Match’s Bottom Lines

Democratic policymakers have spent the last few years encouraging online platforms and services to reduce the spread of hate, conspiracies, and disinformation. They surely applauded as Apple removed Gab, as AWS stopped hosting Parler, as Facebook banned Infowars, and recently as YouTube removed Dan Bongino.

Yet in taking up a bill to help Spotify and Match save some money, Senate Democrats are strangely poised to hobble Apple’s ability to keep hate and disinformation apps off the iPhone. And as Cruz’s comments point out, that would advance Republicans’ campaign against online content moderation.

At a time when Democrats have vocally called for a healthier, safer Internet, this bill would tie Apple’s hands to help achieve that goal.

The Chamber of Progress (progresschamber.org) is a new center-left tech industry policy coalition promoting technology’s progressive future. We work to ensure that all Americans benefit from technological leaps, and that the tech industry operates responsibly and fairly.

Our work is supported by our corporate partners, but our partners do not sit on our board of directors and do not have a vote on or veto over our positions. We do not speak for individual partner companies and remain true to our stated principles even when our partners disagree.

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Adam Kovacevich

Adam Kovacevich

CEO and Founder, Chamber of Progress. Democratic tech industry policy executive. Formerly Google, Lime, Capitol Hill, Dem campaigns.