Ten Terrible Tech Bills from the 117th Congress: Open App Markets Act

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Congress has an unhealthy fixation with app stores—and Congress isn’t alone. Both government and private parties filed antitrust lawsuits last year against the largest app stores. Epic Games filed suit against Apple for its policies on in-app payments, while 36 state attorneys general brought a case against Google for its operation of the Google Play Store.

At least a dozen state legislatures have introduced bills seeking to regulate app stores. And the European Union is moving closer to new expansive rules on the app market with its Digital Markets Act. It appears that Congress has no intentions of missing out.

Open App Markets Act

The Open App Markets Act (S. 2710) is a particularly intrusive piece of legislation that would force a company like Apple to change the way its products are designed. The legislation,  sponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), has garnered bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

The bill would require large covered platforms to allow sideloading, which enables users to download third party apps and app stores. Apple has been at the center of the sideloading discussion, having prohibited the practice altogether. Google has also been criticized for a series of security warnings associated with sideloading on Google-certified Android devices. Ultimately, according to CEI’s Jessica Melugin, the bill would limit consumer choice:

Apple has long prioritized security and integration for its customers over the more open approach this legislation would mandate. The advantage for Apple users is a “walled garden” that offers increased peace of mind thanks to a more closed and heavily vetted online ecosystem. … But for those who would rather trade away some safety for more choice and flexibility, there’s the Google Play store and its Android operating system.

The Open App Markets Act shows little faith in consumers’ ability to make choices. Consumers can already avoid app store fees by using web browsers to download apps and pay for subscriptions. Such downloads come without the official app stores’ security and quality guarantees—which those fees pay for—but consumers are capable of making their own decisions.

Additionally, the legislation ignores the security risks associated with sideloading applications. Sideloading apps is a risky practice, because it increases users’ potential exposure to malware. Apple has been very vocal on this point, even releasing a 30-page threat analysis.

Interestingly enough, iPhone users have sideloaded applications since 2008. Four months before Apple launched its App Store, a third-party app store emerged through a process called “jailbreaking.” It essentially involved hacking one’s device and allowed users to sideload games and applications from outside of Apple’s walled garden.

Jailbreaking was on shaky legal grounds until 2010, when federal regulators made clear that the process did not violate the Digital Millennium Copyrights Act. But now, the Open App Markets Act wants to make sideloading mandatory.     

Tech platforms should be permitted to maximize user security when designing their products, but Congress continues to either misunderstand those threats or ignore them altogether.