Before Epic Games’ battle with Apple over App Store rules, the new email service and iOS app HEY fought with the company about the same issues including in-app purchases. In a new report from The Verge today, ProtonMail’s CEO has come forward and shared his account of working with Apple over the last few years, comparing the company’s business practices to “Mafia extortion.”
Along with all the criticism that Apple has seen around its App Store practices has been a theme that it inconsistently enforces its App Store rules, leading to unfair treatment of developers. HEY brought up this concern boldly this past summer and now speaking in an interview, ProtonMail CEO Andy Yen echoes the concerns and fears that he says are “in the space right now.”
ProtonMail shared with Congress as part of its antitrust investigation into big tech about how Apple “demanded” it add an in-app purchase option even though its app that had previously been approved since 2016 has always been a free app with no purchase options.
That developer [ProtonMail] testified that Apple had demanded in-app purchases (IAP), even though Apple had approved its app without them two years earlier — and that when the dev dared send an email to customers notifying them of the change, Apple threatened to remove the app and blocked all updates.
That happened back in 2018 and is almost identical to what happened this August to WordPress. ProtonMail CEO had strong words to describe what occurred, comparing it to “Mafia extortion”:
“For the first two years we were in the App Store, that was fine, no issues there,” he says. (They’d launched on iOS in 2016.) “But a common practice we see … as you start getting significant uptake in uploads and downloads, they start looking at your situation more carefully, and then as any good Mafia extortion goes, they come to shake you down for some money.”
“We didn’t offer a paid version in the App Store, it was free to download … it wasn’t like Epic where you had an alternative payment option, you couldn’t pay at all,” he relates.
The issue Apple had with ProtonMail was the same as it found with WordPress, a mention in the iOS apps about the paid plans available via the web.
Notably, Apple officially changed its App Store rules as of September 11 to exempt email apps but Yen says they haven’t removed the in-app purchase option in the ProtonMail iOS app (which is 26% more expensive than buying on the web) out of fear and caution and “partly because the rules as written would still keep him from telling his customers that there’s even an upgrade to be had.”
Apple explicitly said email apps are exempt — ProtonMail still hasn’t removed its own in-app purchases because it fears retaliation from Apple, he says.
He claims other developers feel the same way: “There’s a lot of fear in the space right now; people are completely petrified to say anything.”
Yen also believes Apple’s App Store practices are harmful for privacy-focused apps:
Yen argues that Apple’s 30 percent cut is actually hurting privacy-centric apps — because it’s tough to compete with Gmail when you have to charge a fee for your service and you’re also being taxed.
ProtonMail is notably part of the Coalition for App Fairness that recently launched to put antitrust pressure on Apple and is spearheaded by Epic, Spotify, and Tile. Microsoft also aligned itself with that group today as it condemned Apple’s App Store approach while detailing how it will do things differently.
Apple did respond to The Verge on a request to comment, defending its App Store practices:
Apple tells The Verge in no uncertain terms that it doesn’t retaliate against developers — it works with them to get their apps on the store, and claims it applies the rules fairly. Apple points out that developers have many ways to communicate and appeal Apple’s decisions, including the ability to appeal entire rules, and that it will no longer hold up bug fixes for rule violations, unless the app has legal issues.
While there are certainly developers who still feel like they can’t speak up against Apple, more and more are sharing their concerns publicly. Here’s another account The Verge heard:
Following my conversation with ProtonMail’s CEO, another developer who’d been forced to abruptly add in-app purchases also told me she wasn’t willing to risk removing IAP quite yet, partly because the rules aren’t clear enough, and partly because of the arbitrary nature of Apple’s review.
“Even if it got approved, there’d be no guarantee that another reviewer in the future wouldn’t interpret the rules differently and reject the app, and force us to implement IAP all over again,” says Belle Cooper, co-developer of behavior-tracking app Exist.io. “We don’t really fear retaliation. It’s more that we don’t want to constantly live in fear (more than we already do) that they’ll suddenly reject us and force us into doing a whole bunch of work on their terms. It was a really stressful experience last time and threw a spanner in our plans for the app, and we’re nervous it might happen again.”
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