Digital media

What the E.U. Digital Markets Act means for you

Author: Editors Desk,  Eva Dou Source: The Washington Post
March 7, 2024 at 08:27
The E.U. Digital Markets Act has come into effect, forcing six major tech companies to make significant changes. The Biden administration has taken a muted approach.

FILE PHOTO: European Commissioner for Europe fit for the Digital Age Margrethe Vestager speaks during an online news conference on Apple anti trust case at the EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium April 30, 2021. Francisco Seco/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo (Pool/Reuters)
FILE PHOTO: European Commissioner for Europe fit for the Digital Age Margrethe Vestager speaks during an online news conference on Apple anti trust case at the EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium April 30, 2021.Francisco Seco/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo (Pool/Reuters)


Starting now, six of the world’s biggest tech companies must fully comply with the Digital Markets Act, a sweeping set of E.U. rules designed to prevent them from stifling competition.

So what does that mean for us using some of these companies’ platforms and products?

Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta, Microsoft and TikTok owner ByteDance have had to implement major changes to the ways their products and services work as part of rules to make the digital economy fairer. And thanks to those changes, consumers in Europe can do things that are off-limits to the rest of us, such as downloading iPhone apps from third-party markets or using WhatsApp to send messages to loved ones who prefer other services.

These companies may decide to make them available globally to keep everyone’s experience consistent, restrict these updates solely to the European Union or chart a path into the middle ground.

These new rules mean real change for the more than 450 million consumers inside E.U. borders. Here’s a taste of what they can do now — or soon — that was previously off the table.


Getting apps from outside Apple’s App Store

If you are an iPhone user in Europe, this might be the single biggest change you’ll see.

Starting this week, you’ll be able to install apps from alternative markets once they go live. (That said, only a few new app stores — like a business-focused market called Mobivention — have signaled their launch in advance.) And even if you continue to purchase your apps from Apple’s App Store, you’ll have more options when it’s time to check out.

To some app developers, this change (along with a few related ones) affords them greater flexibility in how they distribute, charge for and promote their products. For regular consumers, it could mean easier access to apps that Apple would never sell itself.

Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition, emphasized in an interview with Bloomberg this week the importance of making multiple app stores available to consumers, noting that “if you don’t like one shop, you can go into another one.”

But there are some potential downsides here, too. People will have to manage their accounts in each app store separately, which could mean checking multiple app store accounts to deal with subscriptions and parental controls. If an E.U. resident were to vacation outside Europe for long enough, they would lose access to those alternative app stores entirely until they return.

And for now at least, Apple won’t let just anyone open up a third-party app store. Fortnite creator Epic Games planned to bring its Epic Games Store to iPhone users in Europe, but in early March, Apple terminated the developer account that would have made that possible.

“The highest-level executives at Apple have decided to blatantly violate the intention of the DMA by blocking us,” Epic Games chief executive Tim Sweeney said. “We’re going to complain about this robustly.”

Apple did not respond to request for comment, but it noted in a 32-page document outlining its DMA compliance that the proliferation of alternative app stores could lead to encounters with malware, inconsistent customer service and more pervasive piracy of paid apps.

These companies have made other changes to give users more options, too. Apple has reversed course to allow browsers that don’t use its WebKit engine to run on iPhones in Europe, and Google has built another choice screen into Android that prompts users to choose their default search engine — something many people did not realize they could do.

Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android will now display “choice screens” that highlight the many web browsers you can set as your default. (
Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android will now display “choice screens” that highlight the many web browsers you can set as your default. (


Changing your default web browser

iPhones ship with the Safari browser pre-installed, and most Android devices come with Google’s Chrome browser. But you don’t have to use them, and thanks to the DMA, both companies are required to make the alternatives clearer.

Smartphone owners in Europe will soon see “choice screens” — little informational splash screens that offer a handful of web browser options from which to choose. iPhone users will encounter that choice screen when they open Safari after installing iOS 17.4. Android devices, meanwhile, will make it part of the device setup process.

Messaging people on other platforms

Right now, only two messaging services — WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger — are subject to the DMA, and both of them have to break down some of the barriers that keep users apart from their pals on other platforms.

(Apple’s iMessage, which was at the heart of a cross-platform kerfuffle in the United States a few months ago, was exempted by the E.U. for its more limited reach there.)

The catch? Modifying these platforms to be interoperable with others is no small feat, so Meta, which owns both affected services, doesn’t have to throw their doors open to everyone all at once. Instead, rival messaging apps — say, Telegram or Signal or Viber — have to specifically request that Meta’s services integrate with them.

Once that’s done, Meta is obliged to offer basic functionality — which essentially means WhatsApp users can send messages and media to users of whichever service made a request.

There’s one potential wrinkle here: Meta has different deadlines for supporting different features. That means it will probably be a while before WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger users can participate in cross-platform group chats, and longer still before users can make voice or video calls between platforms.

Transferring data from one service to another

For years, companies such as Apple and Google have offered tools to help you bundle up and download all the data you have stored with them over the years. Now, with the DMA in effect, they also have to make it easier to migrate that data into other services you may want to use.

Exactly what kind of data European users will be able to move around depends on the companies with which they interact.

Google, for instance, will let them migrate data from the Chrome browser, Google Maps, the Google Play Store, Google Search, Google Shopping and YouTube into third-party apps and services that use the company’s developer tools.

TikTok will do the same for things like people’s posts, followers, DMs and more, again assuming the right tools are used. Apple, meanwhile, is apparently limiting this kind of data sharing to information about a person’s “usage of the App Store.”

Are these changes enough?

Here’s a fun fact about DMA compliance: These companies aren’t filing plans and getting stamps of approval from the European Commission. They’re just making changes they think are enough to mollify regulators.


So, what if the E.U. disagrees?

Starting Thursday, a team of about 80 people will begin to evaluate the changes these six tech giants have made, based on compliance reports that have been filed to them. (Each company is also expected to release public versions of those reports that the rest of us can pore over.)

If they fall short of E.U. expectations, those companies are subject to investigations that could run as long as one year, and they may have to pay some hefty fines as a result. Companies could pay up to 10 percent of the company’s global annual turnover, or up to 20 percent for repeat offenders.

And that’s not even the worst-case scenario: The European Commission also says that, in the case of “systematic infringements,” it can call for remedies as extreme as forcing a company to divest parts of its business entirely.


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