In recent years, you may have noticed an intense fervor brewing over what antitrust law can (and more importantly, should, if anything) do to regulate big tech. Among the current cases attracting attention is the European Commission's investigation into the Apple App Store (brought on by a complaint from Spotify, which I previously covered here).
Days after that post, the Dutch competition agency published its market study into mobile app stores, and off the back of those findings, announced its own investigation into possible abuse of dominance by Apple for, among other things, favoring its own apps to the detriment of other app developers. Indeed, much of the concern surrounding platforms' potential ability to favor their own competing products is focused at potential harm to business users (see e.g. here for more on the new rules regulating platform to business relations).
But way back in 2011, four consumers (i.e. iPhone owners) in Northern California filed a class action alleging that Apple's 30% fee on app purchases (one of Spotify's key complaints to the European Commission) constitutes an abuse of its dominance over the App Store. Their case was dismissed due to (lack of) standing, based on a 1977 precedent that says only direct purchasers can sue, since it is app developers selling the app to users - albeit through the platform of the App Store - not Apple.
A mere 8 years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that iPhone users do have standing to sue since they technically purchase the app from Apple. In fact, as the Dutch study reveals, app developers get very little insight about who purchases their apps, as the transaction is handled entirely by Apple.
Monday's ruling means that the case can be remanded to trial and the major issues of (i) whether Apple is dominant and if so (ii) whether those fees constitute an abuse are still to come. But the case (and the fact that it went to the highest court in the land and ended with a 5-4 split ruling) says more about the complex relationship between consumers, business users, and the platforms on which they transact, which a 50-year old precedent may not be equipped to handle.
One thing is clear - the debate over whether existing antitrust rules remain fit for purpose in the digital age is unlikely to come to a denouement any time soon.
Apple posits that allowing only the upstream app developers—and not the downstream consumers—to sue Apple would mean more effective antitrust enforcement. But that makes little sense.