Over the past decade, mobile apps have become the standard platform for most people to consume content online.
Whether it’s shopping, news, or entertainment, there’s a mobile app available for any type of content.
This evolution of consumption patterns is not limited to legal content; hacking has also gone mobile. In some cases pirate movies and streaming apps can be found in official app stores. Otherwise, they can be side-loaded on the devices.
For the general public, these applications are less visible than traditional pirate sites and services. They are not widely indexed by search engines, for example. Nevertheless, popular pirate apps can easily attract a million users.
Copyright holders aren’t happy with these “unauthorized” apps, a sentiment that was reiterated by the Copyright Alliance a few days ago. The public interest group, which has close ties to rights holders, sent a submission to the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), calling for action.
Copyright Alliance Response to NTIA Investigation
The request is a response to a NTIA investigation in the current state of the mobile application ecosystem. In particular, the request for feedback is intended to identify challenges or barriers that limit application distribution or user adoption.
Piracy is not mentioned in the brief, but the Copyright Alliance believes this issue should also be considered.
“In order to promote legal competition in the mobile application ecosystem, the Copyright Alliance calls on the NTIA to examine the harm caused by infringing activities in the mobile application ecosystem to legitimate mobile application developers, third parties rights holders who allow their works to be used in legitimate mobile apps, and mobile app users who may be tricked into using infringing apps.”
The Alliance points out that app piracy is a growing problem that results in billions of dollars in lost revenue. Among other things, the submission cites 2018 data from Google, which indicated that takedown notices removed more than 14,000 items from the Play Store that year.
App and Developer Screening
Although piracy is difficult to eradicate completely, the Copyright Alliance believes that much progress can be made by carefully screening developers and apps before they enter the store.
“One of the most important steps that can be taken to mitigate this harm is for mobile app storefronts to engage in reasonable and enhanced screening of app developers and mobile apps before they are not offered. [sic] on the mobile app storefront and other best practices to deter infringing apps,” writes the Copyright Alliance.
The letter encourages NTIA to promote a set of best practices for the application ecosystem. This should include “enhanced verification” of developers, “screening” of apps for violations, and an effective notification and takedown system.
“This app filtering and removal helps competition by removing fraudulent and counterfeit apps that deprive legitimate app developers of customers,” the letter states.
Apple is a platform that already has strict restrictions and verification practices in place, so the recommendations seem to be primarily aimed at Google. That said, when it comes to challenges and obstacles, Apple also has a lot to say.
The iOS platform is already closed to “unverified” apps and unlike Android, there is no standard option to sideload software on iOS devices. Some people see this as a competitive barrier aimed at maximizing control and profitability, but Apple presents it differently.
In its response to the NTIA investigation, Apple stresses that app filtering is crucial to keeping the App Store and iOS secure. In addition, the ban on sideloading also helps prevent hacking.
“[Sideloading] enables threats such as adware, ransomware, or malware, or scammers who exploit apps to trick users, attack mobile device security features, violate user privacy, and expose developers to hacking and to further harm,” Apple writes.
“The increased threat of sideloading would also erode user and developer confidence in the ecosystem, causing many users to download fewer apps from fewer developers and make fewer in-app purchases.”
Apple points out that this sideloading threat is recognized by the US Department of Homeland Security, European Cybersecurity Agency, Europol and other experts. However, not everyone agrees that side loading is a problem.
Cydia Apple Counters
Jay Freeman’s submission, also known as “saurik”, paints an entirely different picture. According to the creator of popular sideloading app Cydia, Apple’s closed ecosystem is a barrier that limits competition and harms the general public.
Freeman notes that current mobile platforms are doing everything they can to lock people in. The cost of switching to a different platform is “ridiculously high” and requires people to carefully rebuild their digital lives, which can be a lot of work.
“This circumstance grants the platform that manages to offer a user an almost unprecedented level of control over what content they are allowed to access and how their money is spent and directed through their ecosystem,” Freeman writes. .
Cydia’s creator doesn’t believe sideloading is more dangerous either, pointing out that the iOS store has its own scam and fraud problems too. Similarly, jailbreaking also does not lead to more hacking, he claims.
“The US Copyright Office itself – which I would dare say is one of the foremost experts on this specific subject – concluded that ‘the filing did not demonstrate a significant relationship between jailbreak and piracy’ “, writes Freeman.
The responses from the Copyright Alliance, Apple and Freeman show that the ‘challenges’ and ‘barriers’ can be viewed from different angles. Whether and how the NTIA will consider the hacking angle for its final recommendation remains to be seen.