Apple’s Latest Power Move Steals Web Traffic From Publishers

An upcoming change to Apple News+ ‘cannibalizes’ clicks

Photo: Michael Short/Stringer/Getty Images

A change discovered in iOS 14 and macOS 11 betas this week suggests that Apple is hoping to quietly hijack and redirect users into its paid Apple News+ service, which has big implications for publishers, as well as the open web.

The update, which was brought to the public’s attention by Tony Haile, the CEO of Scroll, an app that strips ads out of articles published on partner sites, is subtle: When subscribers or trial users of Apple News+ click on a URL on the web for a site that’s part of the service, like The Atlantic, they’ll be automatically redirected to Apple’s app rather than the publisher’s website. Because the setting is reportedly enabled by default, users might not even realize they’ve been redirected to an Apple-owned app, and publishers will miss out on advertising revenue or directly selling new subscriptions. Meanwhile, Apple News+, which bundles a number of brands into one subscription cost, reportedly takes a 50% cut of fees from publishers that use the platform.

(This should sound familiar to you: Apple’s controversial rev-share model sparked a major conflict this week when the company removed Fortnite from the App Store after the game implementing a stand-alone platform for in-app purchases, thereby circumventing a 30% fee for payments processed on iOS. Epic Games, the creator of Fortnite, is now suing Apple in federal court in retaliation.)

Apple’s beta features sometimes change before the full release, so it’s possible that this new redirect feature will be tweaked or removed prior to the official iOS 14 launch this fall. Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the feature.

But if the feature sticks, by quietly sending news readers into its Apple’s News app without asking them first, the company will be able to boost its numbers and keep readers away from the open web.

This is an intentional design decision. Research has shown that most people don’t bother to change default settings: The tendency leads to what some design experts call the “power of defaults” and is described in one Medium post as a “phenomenon where making an option the default among a set of choices increases the likelihood of it being chosen.” Apple wants its users to stick to its first-party services whenever possible, because, of course, the company is able to leverage those services to its advantage.

For example, Apple has long refused to allow users to choose the default apps on their phones. While Android users could choose their default browser or mail app, iPhone users couldn’t make that choice until this year, with Apple adding limited control in the upcoming release of iOS 14. You can download the Firefox browser or the Gmail app, but the power of defaults suggests many people won’t. Sometimes, there are no other options at all: On the company’s HomePod smart speaker, asking Siri for music pushes users to Apple Music (a restriction that caused Spotify to complain to the European Union). Search for “music” on an iPhone and the first result also happens to be Apple Music.

Apple’s ability to hijack traffic to news sites and direct it into its own app is important, because publishers are already waging a losing war regardless of the route they choose on iOS. If publishers want to offer subscriptions directly to consumers through their own app, rather than via the News app, Apple would get a 30% cut of those. In Safari, Apple has waged an open war on third-party tracking scripts, crucial to advertising networks, cutting their revenues further. Their best shot is getting you to sign up for a paid subscription in a browser, but Apple’s rules ban developers from asking users to sign up on the web. These issues are part of why Apple is under investigation in Europe for abuse of a dominant market position.

Apple could easily provide users with a choice the first time it tries to redirect them to its News app, offering the option to open in the publisher’s own app instead. Apple News already has a sizable advantage over any of its competitors in the first place. It’s preloaded front-and-center on the home screen of every iPhone, so why does it need to hijack links as well?

Apple is famous for trying to make its software “simple” but that often comes at the expense of competition, and the company has shown repeatedly that it makes user experience decisions that serve its own goals — even when they’re inconsistent with rules it would impose on third-party developers. In the words of Spotify’s complaint, it’s time that Apple play fair across the board, and stop trying to sneak these types of changes through when nobody’s looking.

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. UX Manager @ Shopify.

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