Apple Backs Off Crackdown on Parental-Control Apps

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Over the past year, Apple purged iPhone apps that helped people limit the amount of time they and their children spent on Apple devices, drawing accusations of anticompetitive behavior.

On Monday, as news broke that federal officials were stepping up antitrust scrutiny of Apple and its peers, the Silicon Valley giant abruptly reversed its policy and quietly disclosed that the apps’ practices were allowed.

After promoting its latest software updates in a splashy two-hour presentation on Monday morning, Apple articulated its new policy in a short blog post on a section of its website for developers.

The post said parental-control apps could now use two technologies that Apple had recently cited as grounds for their removal from iPhones.

One technology, mobile device management, or M.D.M., enables parents to take control of a child’s phone. The other is a virtual private network, or V.P.N., which parents can use to block certain apps on a child’s phone.

In the post, Apple said the apps could use the technologies if they didn’t “sell, use or disclose to third parties any data for any purpose.”

“These apps were using an enterprise technology that provided them access to kids’ highly sensitive personal data,” an Apple spokeswoman said in a statement. “We do not think it is O.K. for any apps to help data companies track or optimize advertising of kids.”

She did not say whether Apple had found evidence that of the apps’ doing so. The app makers deny such activity. The spokeswoman declined to say why Apple had changed its mind.

Fred Stutzman, the chief executive of Freedom, an app that helped people track and limit their time on iPhones, said, “My reaction is: Why this last year of pain? And we end up exactly in the same place.”

Apple removed Freedom from iPhones in August for using a V.P.N., without much explanation, Mr. Stutzman said. The move cost his business more than $1 million, he said.

Apple’s move followed an April report by The New York Times that it had purged some apps. On Monday, The Times and other publications reported that House lawmakers said they would step up their antitrust scrutiny of big tech companies and that the Justice Department would consider antitrust complaints against Apple.

Apple’s tight control over its App Store is likely to be central to any antitrust investigation of the company. Spotify and two parental-control apps recently complained to European regulators that Apple was abusing its dominance of the digital marketplace, which has become one of the world’s largest centers of commerce. Dutch regulators are also investigating the issue.

And the Supreme Court recently allowed an antitrust class action to move forward, ruling that consumers can try to prove that Apple used the App Store to raise apps’ prices.

In response, Apple published a new webpage aimed at explaining its App Store policies and defending its practices. Apple said it tried to make the App Store a safe place for consumers and a good business opportunity for developers. It said it welcomed competition.

Apple’s reversal on Monday concluded a yearlong struggle for some app developers. At its annual developers conference in San Jose on June 4 last year, Apple unveiled a feature to help people limit the time that they and their children spend on the iPhone. Around that time, Apple quietly began removing or restricting apps in its App Store that offered similar services.

In April, The Times reported on Apple’s app removals. The makers of several banned apps told The Times that Apple was acting unfairly and had severely damaged their businesses. Apple responded to the article by saying it had removed the apps because they “put users’ privacy and security at risk.” The company added: “Contrary to what The New York Times reported over the weekend, this isn’t a matter of competition. It’s a matter of security.”

At the encouragement of Tony Fadell, a former Apple executive and one of the iPhone’s creators, 17 of the affected app makers joined together and last week proposed a technological solution, called an application programming interface, or A.P.I., that they said would enable them to continue to help parents limit their children’s screen time without invading their privacy.

While the companies could offer a road map for resolving the issue, it would be up to Apple to create the A.P.I. Apple often creates A.P.I.s so software made by other companies can work well with its popular products, like the iPhone.

“It’s been a hellish roller coaster,” said Dustin Dailey, a senior product manager at OurPact, which had been the top parental-control iPhone app, with more than three million downloads, before Apple pulled it in February. OurPact, which had counted on its iPhone app for about 80 percent of its revenue, lost roughly $3 million from Apple’s move, a spokeswoman said.

In response to Apple’s stance that the apps could gain too much control over a child’s phone, Mr. Dailey said, his team shared information with Apple about how it handled user data. “We’d be open to an audit,” he said.

The affected parental-control and screen-time apps are not yet back in the App Store. Several had appealed Apple’s decision to remove them, while others will probably have to reapply for entry.

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