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Apple explains why it’s cracking down on third-party screen time and parental control apps

Apple explains why it’s cracking down on third-party screen time and parental control apps


Following the debut of its own Screen Time app

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Following the introduction of Apple’s iOS Screen Time feature, a number of app developers who created screen-tracking and parental control apps have been asked to change their products, or have been booted from the App Store completely, according to a new report in The New York Times.

The Times says that “Apple has removed or restricted at least 11 of the 17 most downloaded screen-time and parental-control apps,” as well as a number of others. The report points out that Apple’s Screen Time app has some drawbacks compared to some of the third-party alternatives, giving users fewer ways to block kids (or themselves) from accessing unwanted apps, less-granular scheduling, and that children were able to work around Apple’s web-filtering tools. It also points out that third-party apps could be used across iOS and Android platforms, whereas Apple’s Screen Time makes it difficult for parents to oversee Android devices.

The report features interviews with developers who found their apps pulled from the store abruptly, and who claimed they faced unclear and vague instructions for changes, or unresponsive support from the company. In many cases, the developers note that being booted from the App store can be devastating to their companies — Amir Moussavian the CEO of OurPact, says that 80 percent of its revenue came from the App Store.

Apple maintains that the apps violated its rules, that third-party apps could gather too much data on devices, and that the actions weren’t related to the company’s debut of its own screen-monitoring tools.

In an e-mail seen by MacRumors, Apple’s Phil Schiller pushed back on the Times’ report, saying that the publication didn’t share the company’s complete statement, and explained that some of the companies that were booted were “using a technology called Mobile Device Management or “MDM” and installing an MDM Profile as a method to limit and control use of these devices. MDM is a technology that gives one party access to and control over many devices, it was meant to be used by a company on it’s own mobile devices as a management tool, where that company has a right to all of the data and use of the devices.”

Here’s Apple’s full statement, which it’s now sharing publicly:

Apple has always believed that parents should have tools to manage their children’s device usage. It’s the reason we created, and continue to develop, Screen Time. Other apps in the App Store, including Balance Screen Time by Moment Health and Verizon Smart Family, give parents the power to balance the benefits of technology with other activities that help young minds learn and grow.

We recently removed several parental control apps from the App Store, and we did it for a simple reason: they put users’ privacy and security at risk. It’s important to understand why and how this happened.

Over the last year, we became aware that several of these parental control apps were using a highly invasive technology called Mobile Device Management, or MDM. MDM gives a third party control and access over a device and its most sensitive information including user location, app use, email accounts, camera permissions, and browsing history. We started exploring this use of MDM by non-enterprise developers back in early 2017 and updated our guidelines based on that work in mid-2017.

MDM does have legitimate uses. Businesses will sometimes install MDM on enterprise devices to keep better control over proprietary data and hardware. But it is incredibly risky—and a clear violation of App Store policies—for a private, consumer-focused app business to install MDM control over a customer’s device. Beyond the control that the app itself can exert over the user’s device, research has shown that MDM profiles could be used by hackers to gain access for malicious purposes.

Parents shouldn’t have to trade their fears of their children’s device usage for risks to privacy and security, and the App Store should not be a platform to force this choice. No one, except you, should have unrestricted access to manage your child’s device.

When we found out about these guideline violations, we communicated these violations to the app developers, giving them 30 days to submit an updated app to avoid availability interruption in the App Store. Several developers released updates to bring their apps in line with these policies. Those that didn’t were removed from the App Store.

We created the App Store to provide a secure, vibrant marketplace where developers and entrepreneurs can bring their ideas to users worldwide, and users can have faith that the apps they discover meet Apple’s standards of security and responsibility.

Apple has always supported third-party apps on the App Store that help parents manage their kids’ devices. Contrary to what The New York Times reported over the weekend, this isn’t a matter of competition. It’s a matter of security.

In this app category, and in every category, we are committed to providing a competitive, innovative app ecosystem. There are many tremendously successful apps that offer functions and services similar to Apple’s in categories like messaging, maps, email, music, web browsers, photos, note-taking apps, contact managers and payment systems, just to name a few. We are committed to offering a place for these apps to thrive as they improve the user experience for everyone.

Earlier this week, developers for two apps, Kidslox and Qustodio, filed an antitrust complaint against Apple in the European Union, and last month, Kaspersky Lab filed an antitrust complaint after its own screen-time management app was removed from the store. They aren’t the first to be worried about the company’s reach when it comes to the App Store: Spotify filed an antitrust complaint of its own against Apple, saying that the technology company was giving itself an unfair advantage against third-party music streaming services.

Update, April 28th at 9:11 PM ET: Added Apple’s full statement, which it published on Sunday.