EU commissioner slams Apple Intelligence delay

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If you believe European Commission Vice President Margrethe Vestager, Apple’s decision to delay introduction of its Apple Intelligence AI is a “stunning declaration” of its own anticompetitive behavior. 

Having spent the morning listening to Vestager’s comments at a Forum Europa event, I’m full of a combined sense of horror and dismay. Because while touting the need to make Europe more competitive, the regulatory chief seems also to be putting barriers in place that will have the opposite effect. 

(You can watch Vastager’s speech and Q&A here.)

Slowing down the renewable transition

Take climate change, for example. China is unique in that once it recognized the growing threat of environmental destruction, it launched a root and branch attempt to migrate to renewable fuels and attack pollution levels. 

That journey is far from over, but one result has been the creation of a strong solar panel manufacturing industry at global scale. Europe doesn’t have anything like the capacity to build renewable energy infrastructure at the same low cost, so in its haste to combat climate change, it just clobbered China with tariffs to make that lower cost renewable infrastructure more expensive to deploy — even as energy costs spiral and the planet heats up.

I see that decision as a suicide note, given the scale of the global crisis. Vestager sees it as a victory. I am unconvinced.

A place for kids

Another Vestager victory involves App Stores. “How good will it be as a parent to open an App Store and know all the apps in there are safe for children,” said Vestager during her presentation.

“How good indeed,” I respond. “It’s why I use the heavily curated, heavily moderated Apple App Store and apply parental controls on the device.” 

Of course, what Vestager is celebrating is Europe’s demand to open up the App Store under the Digital Markets Act, a move that might — as some security experts posit — make children less safe, as not every App Store will be equally secure, resilient, or trustworthy. If events on iOS echo what’s already happening on Android, we will see malware and fraud attempts amplify as criminals exploit the inherent vulnerabilities of sideloading.

But perhaps the chance for European firms to make a couple of Euros matters more. And there is strength to the argument that at Apple’s scale it does need to ensure that competitors can craft viable businesses on its platforms, in order to avoid its power becoming too great.

Pushed out of the garden

On the DMA moves against Apple, Vestager said: 

“For a company who has built a very effective walled garden vertically integrated from the device operating system to the app store, of course, it is more challenging that you need to make sure that competitors can be on your platform, because you have become a gatekeeper. If you were not the essential road for businesses to reach their consumers, of course, we would have no say. But that is exactly the point, that you are an essential route to consumers and that is why you have these obligations. And of course, they go for Apple as well as for anyone else who is a… gatekeeper.”

So now we have a series of European decisions that will make kids (and everyone else using Apple products) less safe, and help ensure the planet gets warmer for longer. What else can the EU regulators come up with?

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Artificial intelligence, of course, specifically Apple Intelligence — which Vestager now seems to think shows how anti-competitive Apple is because the company won’t introduce these tools in Europe until it has clarity.

When it announced plans to delay the introduction, Apple said it “was committed to collaborating with the European Commission” to enable it to introduce these features, but was concerned at some of the requirements of the DMA and how they could impact the plan.

During the talk, Vestager was asked: “On Apple, to the best of your knowledge how does Apple’s Walled Garden apply to their AI? How do you interpret their decision not to launch Apple Intelligence for the EU?”

Vestager’s response: Apple said it will not launch the new AI features, “because of the obligations that they have in Europe,” she said. “And the obligations that they have in Europe, it is to be open for competition, that is sort of the short version of the DMA.

“And I find that very interesting that they say we will now deploy AI where we are not obliged to enable competition. I think that is the most stunning, open declaration that they know 100% that this is another way of disabling competition, where they have a stronghold already.”

The struggle for privacy

When Apple announced the delayed rollout, it was quite detailed about its concerns: “Specifically, we are concerned that the interoperability requirements of the DMA could force us to compromise the integrity of our products in ways that risk user privacy and data security,” it said.  “We are committed to collaborating with the European Commission in an attempt to find a solution that would enable us to deliver these features to our EU customers without compromising their safety.”

But Vestager’s arguments, and previous mutterings on the topic of user security and privacy, seem to suggest that the “pro competition” trading bloc that gave us GDPR (ironically wrecking the economics of small website publishers when it did), isn’t going to be terribly receptive to Apple’s arguments that the highly personal data gathered on someone’s device should be protected, minimized, and not simply made available to third party AI competitors without clear user consent, protection, and oversight.  

‘This is surveillance’

As Apple CEO, Tim Cook warned six years ago, the potential for AI-driven surveillance has never been greater; that really is what is at stake in Apple’s struggles with the European Commission. 

If Europe decides in some way to force Apple to open up these features to competitors without agreeing on checks and balances to protect user data in the hopes of stimulating some great (imaginary) European unicorn digital business, then you really can kiss all hopes of digital privacy goodbye — though perhaps a smattering of billionaires will add to their bank balance.

Finally, a question: Why is it, really, that after Vestager has been in command of European competitive policy for over a decade, the bloc has become less, rather than more, relevant on the global stage? 

Please follow me on Mastodon, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

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