India’s telecom regulator and Apple Inc are at a crossroads over the development of a government anti-spam mobile application. The application’s user privacy has caused a deepening rift between the two.
Apple Inc. is an American multinational technology company founded by Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne in April 1976. It is headquartered in Cupertino, California. The company designs, develops, and sells consumer electronics, computer software, and online services. Additionally, Apple manufactures hardware products including the iPhone smartphone, the iPad tablet computer, the Mac personal computer, and the iPod portable media player, among others. Apple software includes the macOS and iOS operating systems, and the iTunes media player.
Apple is known to be the largest information technology company by revenue, globally, and the second-largest mobile phone manufacturer after Samsung. In February 2015, Apple became the first American to be valued at over US$700 billion. As per 2017 figures, the company employs 123,000 full-time employees, and operates 499 retail stores in 22 countries.
Millions of Indians are swamped by telemarketing calls and other unsolicited text messages in the world’s second largest wireless telecoms market behind China. In November 2017, Apple was given the contract to develop a ‘Do-Not-Disturb’ (DND) mobile application by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) for iPhone users. Apple submitted an option to develop the DND app over a new SMS spam feature created on the latest version of Apple’s iOS platform. The application developed by TRAI allows customers to file complaints regarding unsolicited commercial or promotional calls and SMS by selecting the call from their call log in the phone or from the inbox in that case of an SMS.
Apple verified that the new iOS features to tackle spam text messages would assist the government build the app, but failed to mention that the app’s may be potentially unable to access call logs for reporting spam. It was later stated that the new iOS feature could help iPhone users to filter or block spam messages and block calls but not the option to file complaint with TRAI against the spammers.
The latest dispute comes after Apple agreed to offer some assistance to the regulator to tap into new iOS features to build the “Do Not Disturb” app. The prime issue has been that in allowing the app broad access to customers’ call and text logs, Apple could compromise their privacy.
The ongoing arguments are the latest set of challenges faced by major technology companies, who require adding clauses for user privacy while handling requests from governments and regulators when being granted access to content on devices. In July last year, Apple was asked to remove certain apps from its Chinese App Store in order to comply with a new cyber security law. The new law was aimed at helped using browse the Internet privately.
Despite entering into an agreement, Apple and TRAI have not had any further discussions since November. In January, TRAI told Apple that it was still waiting for “basic clarifications” on what exactly the iOS version of its app can offer.
Apple’s statement displeased the head of TRAI, R.S. Sharma, who says he will seek advice from his legal team on how Apple could be pushed to help develop the application more swiftly. “We will take appropriate legal action,” Sharma stated. “This is unjust, it shows the approach and attitude of this company.”
The Android version of TRAI’s “Do Not Disturb” app was introduced in 2016. When the app is opened, users are required to grant the app permissions to access contacts and view text messages, and then users can report them as spam. Google said its top priority is keeping user information secure. Google also believes in “openness and in the ability of users to make purchasing and downloading choices without top-down enforcement or censorship.”
Apple said it has offered to have its technical teams meet TRAI, but the regulator is awaiting more details from the company before proceeding.
Our assessment is that regulatory bodies across the world are emphasizing on user privacy and data security. So far, TRAI has not provided any details on what action it might take against Apple. However, we believe that this dispute is more likely to be a public relations battle against Apple rather than a legal one. The tussle comes at a critical time for Apple as it looks to India as a key growth market where it is also in talks to expand iPhone manufacturing units. Although Apple enjoys a high level of brand loyalty, if it continues to receive significant criticism regarding labor practices of contractors, environmental, or business practices, including anti-competitive behavior, its reputation could be negatively impacted in the long-run.