When you spend money in Apple’s App Store, the company generally takes a 30 percent cut — one that adds up to an estimated $19 billion per year. Apple’s currently in the fight of its life to prove to judges, government regulators, and its own developers that it deserves those dollars, but not everyone’s buying it anymore.
Over the past seven days alone, South Korea declared its disbelief on the global stage, passing a landmark bill that could keep Apple and Google from directly collecting their 30 percent cut, and may inspire other governments to do the same. Developers also expressed their rage at an Apple press release, where the company spun its agreement to settle a lawsuit for $100 million as a $100 million fund for developers — while quietly promising 30 million of those dollars to the lawyers and enacting no truly significant changes. The CEO of Hopscotch shared her story of how Apple’s App Store review team repeatedly gaslit her, insisting there was an issue with the well-liked kids coding app that didn’t actually exist.
On Wednesday, Apple made a slightly more significant concession for (big) developers, and as Nick Heer writes, the company seems to have momentarily dropped its smug tone. But we don’t need to get into complex developer negotiations to point out the head-bangingly obvious ways Apple is falling down on the job.
While the company claims the App Store is “curated by experts,” that it is “a safe and trusted place to discover and download apps,” and that it holds apps to “the highest standards for privacy, security, and content,” the company’s own emails paint a different picture. They show that Apple knew for years about the exact kind of egregious scams that bilk iPhone users out of millions of dollars, long before our report, and yet they keep failing to stop them from invading the App Store.
It bears repeating: Apple is the most valuable and profitable company in the world. The company currently makes $10,000 every second on average, $3,600 of which is profit, a large portion of which comes from the App Store itself. (The App Store alone has been a bigger business than the Mac or iPad since 2016, see #10 here.)
If Apple wanted to change this system, it could. But I expect Apple will only be dragged kicking and screaming into a world with a more functional App Store, because it seems incapable of taking the blindingly obvious steps that might better protect its users — again, despite being the most valuable and profitable company in the world.
Here are eight to start.
1. Hire an App Review team big enough to actually do the job
Apple has 500 app reviewers. Just 500 against the entire world; 500 human beings expected to process 100,000 apps per week with some help from automated tools.
Even if you were to give Apple the benefit of the doubt and assume that every one of them is a skilled, savvy surveyor sussing out scams in a snap, the math barely makes sense. Even though App Store reviewers typically work 10-hour days (#68), the sheer volume of apps means each reviewer would only get 15 minutes to evaluate each app — and only then if they worked without taking any breaks. (Documents also suggest they may work quite a bit of overtime.)
Emails from the Epic v. Apple trial suggest App Review isn’t necessarily that savvy either, with Apple head of fraud Eric Friedman calling the department “a wetware rate limiting service and nothing more” (#60), and suggesting its goal is simply to get apps through the pipe. Other documents from the trial seem to back up that idea, repeatedly showing how the App Review team continually pushed for a faster “SLA” (service level agreement, a guarantee that it would review apps in a certain period of time) and sometimes made mistakes when they were working too quickly (#65), letting bad apps into the store.
How big should Apple’s App Review team actually be? Hard to say, but Facebook says it has upwards of 15,000 content moderators, Google tells us it has over 20,000 reviewers across its many services, and even Twitter has 2,200 checkers, the company tells The Verge.
These other platforms admittedly have far more messages than Apple to review — but then again, none of them claim to offer “the highest standards for privacy, security and content” while testing entire programs that run on a pocket computer. Apple could likely do a better job with more reviewers.
And again, Apple is the most valuable and profitable company in the world, unlike, say, Twitter. It’s pretty easy to argue that the number of moderators should be higher.
2. Police its most profitable apps for fraud
This isn’t rocket science. Anyone can do it. I did it. You can too. Just look for the apps on the App Store that are making the most money, find ones with suspicious user reviews, and inspect them for stupidly high subscription prices — say, $9.99 every single week for a wallpaper app that just repackages wallpapers you can download for free online. Congrats, you’ve found a scam!
The head of Apple’s App Review program wrote in January 2018 that “We need to think about how to stop this from happening,” referencing an entire 32-page presentation about how to trick users into paying for recurring subscriptions using apps that harvest wallpaper, horoscopes, and ringtones off the internet for free. (#64) Yet we saw those same exact scams still running three years later. When I asked Apple whether it ever goes back to check its top grossing apps for fraud, the company wouldn’t give me a straight answer.
3. Automatic scam refunds
A dark thought crossed my mind while reporting on App Store scams: maybe Apple doesn’t stop them because it’s more profitable to look the other way. There’s no evidence of that, but you know what Apple could do to eliminate that ugly idea entirely? Universal automatic scam refunds.
When Apple retroactively removes scammy apps from the App Store — as it sometimes does when journalists and developers call them out — it should automatically give people back their money, and warn them to stop using those apps.
That clearly isn’t what Apple does today. The company told me it has to review fraud on a case-by-case basis (read: not automatically) even when I specifically pointed out that Apple VP Kyle Andreer told Congress under oath that it makes scammed customers whole again. Customers have the option to ask for refunds, but how would they even know to do that, or even stop getting scammed, if Apple doesn’t tell them about the fraud?
4. Stop auto-renewing subscriptions by default
People hate pop-up messages. You know what kind of pop-up messages I wouldn’t hate? Ones that ask me if I’d genuinely like to keep subscribing to an app or service before I get charged for another month. Every single time, I’d know the App Store was looking out for me, instead of looking out for the company that’s secretly hoping I’m the kind of customer who never bothers to check my credit card bill.
I don’t expect Apple to actually do this, because I expect it would be losing out on an immense amount of profit, and might drive some of the most lucrative developers away from the platform — the kind that were leaving because they thought Apple already made it too easy to quit their service. But it would immediately fix the problems of so many people who, when they realized they’d been scammed, went to the reviews section of the App Store to complain that they didn’t know how to cancel their subscription.
If Apple truly cared, they’d take the same stance with people’s money as they do with privacy:
“Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them.”
Don’t auto-renew subscriptions by default.https://t.co/DVOViWOtzu
— Kosta Eleftheriou (@keleftheriou) April 14, 2021
I think scam hunter Kosta Eleftheriou has it exactly right: “If Apple truly cared, they’d take the same stance with people’s money as they do with privacy,” the same stance that Apple CEO Steve Jobs himself articulated so clearly in 2010. “Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them,” Jobs said about privacy.
5. Stop selling ads atop App Store search results
While it’s hard for me to be entirely sympathetic with Epic Games’ fight to secure more Fortnite profits, I believe CEO Tim Sweeney got one thing very right years before he sued. It is ridiculous that the top App Store search result is almost never what you’re searching for — because another developer can pay Apple to take it away from you.
Really, how did we get to this state? The store prioritizes ad revenue above user intent, so now developers buy ads in front of each others’ products so that exactly nobody’s search results lead to the actual thing they typed. Who in this cycle isn’t crazy?
— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) July 19, 2018
It seems some developers have gotten wise to this, and by “wise” I mean given into Apple’s greed: Walmart and PUBG Mobile appear to be paying for the ad slots above their own apps, so searching for them hilariously gives you the same exact app twice in a row. Can you believe Apple’s original plan to give 15 percent back to small developers (#11) was to give them store credit for these search ads? “We’ll let you have a portion of the advantage we give to richer companies who pay us” doesn’t sound that generous to me.
These search ads are plainly user-hostile, even if other search providers do it too — and Apple could make a serious statement about its commitment to users by eliminating them from the App Store.
6. Lock underage users out of adult apps
In April, we wrote how Apple had unwittingly invited secret gambling dens into the App Store that masqueraded as games for kids. Bait-and-switch apps aren’t an easy thing for Apple to protect against, so I can’t call that an egregious failure — though maybe they’d catch more of them if they had more reviewers, yeah?
Anyway, the Tech Transparency Project recently discovered that minors don’t even have to stumble upon a secret gambling den to access illicit content — the App Store will serve up blatantly adult apps even if Apple already knows that a user is underage. Creating an Apple ID for a simulated 14-year-old, the Project found 37 adult apps that allowed them to sign up, including dating apps that showed explicit adult content and a casino game, and saw advertisements pop up for additional casino apps that were rated for the 17+ age group.
According to trial documents, Apple’s head of fraud mentioned in February 2020 that the App Store had a problem with child predators, calling it an “under-resourced challenge” and also an “active threat.” (#71). Stopping minors from accessing certain apps wouldn’t be a silver bullet, but it feels like an obvious patch for an embarrassing hole: otherwise, why does Apple bother to collect our ages at all?
And while we’re on the topic of people who actually identify scammy apps in the App Store and leave their unanswered pleas for help there: did you know the App Store used to have an actual “Report a problem” button on every single app?
When I asked Apple about this, the company told me it still exists, but it feels like a joke by comparison. Here’s why:
- The only way to naturally discover the new link is for users to scroll all the way down to the bottom of the Apps or Games tab. You can’t even access it from your purchases tab.
- It doesn’t actually open in the App Store itself; it launches a web browser, where you need to log in again.
- If you pick “Report suspicious activity,” the site redirects you to contact Apple Support instead of actually submitting a report.
- If you pick “Report a quality issue,” free-to-download apps are greyed out, with no way to click on them. Apple won’t let you report a scam unless you’ve already fallen for it.
- The only other options are “Request a refund” and “Find my content.”
- If you pick “Request a refund,” none of the drop-down options allow you to report a scam.
It’s possible, even likely, that if Apple allowed just anyone to report scams it would be inundated by false reports from rival developers. But Apple already fosters an environment where bad actors can game the system: buying up hundreds or thousands of fake star scores.
8. Kill off star ratings
Star scores make platforms look good. They allow people who like a product to quickly and easily give it a good “review” with a minimum of effort — unlike traditional reviews where many people only bother to write something when they’re frustrated and angry. Star scores can theoretically even out the bias towards negative reviews, making every product on a storefront look better than it would otherwise seem.
But they also allow bad actors to destroy the integrity of the system, because it’s impossible for most people to tell whether an actual user, a robot, or a paid stooge added that 5-star rating. There’s no name to check, no language requirement, no meaningful accountability. So it’s no surprise that some of the most egregious App Store scams we described in April had seemingly thousands of fake 5-star reviews propping them up — to the point that an app with a 4.5-star rating in the App Store would have actually been rated a 1.7 if you looked at the written reviews.
So far, Apple’s solution has been to purge fake ratings, and seemingly after the fact. But it could also just purge star scores to begin with, and find a better way — like, say, only allowing positive reviews from people who’ve used an app for a certain length of time. Other platforms like Amazon and Google have similar star score problems; this is an opportunity for Apple to lead.
In May, Apple reported that it stopped $1.5 billion in potentially fraudulent transactions before they went through, permanently banned a million accounts, terminated hundreds of thousands of developer accounts, and rejected nearly a million risky apps in 2020 alone. It clarified to The Verge that that $1.5 billion was directly attributable to Apple, too, not just payment processors automatically doing their job. They sound like impressive numbers for a single year on the job.
But the App Store still contains obvious issues that anyone can see. If the company wants to justify a 30 percent cut in the name of keeping customers safe, it should embrace some obvious solutions too; ones that vividly show Apple puts people ahead of profits, instead of the other way around.