Epic Games v. Apple on App Store Payment Systems in South Korea

By: Inyoung Cheong

Why Did Epic Games’ CEO Claim to be South Korean?

As a South Korean, it felt surreal to see Oli London, a British YouTube influencer, claiming to be Korean following multiple plastic surgeries. Although Korean culture has been well-promoted by the band BTS (and more recently by the Netflix show, Squid Game), I never imagined that a non-Korean would ever want to be Korean. Soon after, more astonishing news came out. Tim Sweeney, the CEO of Epic Games, one of the most influential video game companies in the world, tweeted “I am a Korean!” Why is this high-profile figure so thrilled about my home country? 

How Epic Games Was Treated in the U.S.

Epic has been involved in a serious dispute with Apple since 2015 when Tim Sweeny questioned the necessity of digital marketplaces, like Apple’s App Store for iOS devices and Google Play, taking 30% of app-generated revenue. To avoid the 30% charge, Epic released an installer in mid-2020 for its massively popular video game, Fortnite “Season 4,” with a feature, codenamed “Project Liberty,” that offered a 20% discount for in-game money when users chose to directly purchase the game from Epic. Apple took down the app Fortnite for violating its App Store’s terms of service within hours, leaving iOS and macOS users unable to update their video game. Apple has claimed that in-app purchase policies “ensure that iOS apps meet Apple’s high standards for privacy, security, content, and quality.” However, app developers view this system as monopolistic and exploitative, one that allows companies like Google and Apple to make a quick profit without providing value to developers or consumers. 

Interview with Tim Cook on Sway, April 5 2021

In the United States, the U.S. District Court for Northern California did not fully agree with antitrust claims brought by Epic Games against Apple regarding this issue. While Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers issued a permanent injunction in this case in September 2021 that requires Apple to allow app developers to communicate with users about alternative payment systems, Epic Games suffered a pyrrhic victory. Judge Rogers rejected the allegation that Apple’s App Store is a monopoly and ordered Epic Games to pay Apple 30% of all revenue collected through the system since it was implemented for breach of contract. This award amounts to a sum of more than $3.5 million. On Twitter, Tim Sweeney expressed his disappointment, saying “[t]oday’s ruling isn’t a win for developers or for consumers.” 

It’s important to also note that while the lawsuit was still ongoing, Apple lowered its commission from 30% to 15% for developers that make under one million U.S. dollars per year. 

The World’s First Law Directly Regulating In-App Purchase Systems 

In contrast to the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, South Korean lawmakers turned out to be more empathetic to app developers. In an exceptional move, South Korean lawmakers made the practice of forcing app purchases through particular virtual storefronts illegal. In August 2021, South Korea’s National Assembly enacted amendments to the country’s Telecommunications Business Act that commits the Korea Communications Commission (KCC) to preventing online platforms from requiring certain payment methods, unfairly delaying the review of mobile content, and unfairly deleting mobile content from the app market. In Apple’s case, an app-developer whose app was removed from Apple’s App Store can simply file a complaint with the KCC and seek an administrative penalty against the App Store instead of bringing a time-consuming lawsuit. Currently, it appears that South Korea is the only country on the planet to enforce this type of legislation, hence Time Sweeney’s jubilant cry, “I am a Korean!”

Debates Over the New Law in the South Korea’s National Assembly 

Predictably, both Google and Apple recently worked with local major law firms in appealing to the legislature to block passage of the bill. Global business organizations including the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, NetChoice, Asian Trade Center, and Asia Internet Coalition also filed objections to the bill. All of these groups argued that compliance with in-app purchase policies contributes to creating safe, secure, and credible digital platforms that have enabled developers to sell their products abroad. 

Affected tech companies even turned to the U.S. government and accused the bill of being a non-tariff trade barrier in violation of a joint trade agreement, but the Biden administration did not take official action other than briefly mentioning the issue in the U.S. Trade Representative National Trade Estimate Report in March 2021. According to the New York Times, this inaction reflects the Biden administration’s critical attitude towards these tech giants’ incredible power over commerce.

In addition, legislative documents demonstrate disagreement between various Korean government agencies. The Korea Fair Trade Commission (Korea FTC) initially opposed this bill because “forcing payment systems” could be regulated by antitrust authorities as predatory conduct without introducing new telecommunication regulations. In the end however, Korea FTC reluctantly agreed to the KCC’s jurisdiction into this area after weathering President Moon and lawmakers’ relentless concerns and rebuke concerning the current disparity in app markets. 

Google and Apple Took Different Approaches 

Just after the enactment of the new law, Epic Games requested that Apple restore Fortnite to operational condition in South Korea, but Apple declined. Apple said, “we would welcome Epic’s return to the App Store if they agree to play by the same rules as everyone else.” The KCC then requested that Apple and Google submit compliance plans by October 2021. Both companies’ initial plans were, however, turned down by the KCC. 

Before submitting a new plan, Wilson L. White, Google’s public policy and government relations senior counsel, had a conference with a KCC chairman on November 4th. White committed to giving developers “the option to add an alternative in-app billing system alongside Google Play’s billing system for their users in Korea.” 

In contrast to Google’s move, Apple remains resistant. Apple is holding its ground, stating that its current policy is already compliant with the law, even though a KCC official made it clear that Apple’s position “goes against the law.” The South Korean local newspaper ETNEWS reported that Apple CEO Tim Cook ordered “we should not step back in South Korea.” It was also announced that Apple’s Korea unit chief Brandon Yoon resigned from his position. A South Korean lawmaker, Jo Seung-rae, opined that neither Apple nor Google are doing enough to comply with South Korea’s new law and called Apple’s claim that it complied with the law “nonsensical.”

Tim Sweeney’s Push and KCC’s Remaining Tasks 

Tim Sweeny gave a speech in South Korea on November, 15, 2021, saying “Apple is ignoring laws passed by Korea’s democracy. Apple must be stopped.” He also expressed his strong support for South Korea’s anti-monopoly push during a video conference with the Korea Communications Commission’s Chair, Han Sang-hyuk, on November 17. Chair Han said, “[f]or a platform ecosystem where everyone coexists, not only the government, but also platform companies, content producers, creators, and users need to participate in making changes.”

Last month, the KCC initiated notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures. The KCC notified the public about the implementation of an ordinance that allows the KCC to impose monetary penalties of up to two percent of a company’s revenues on companies that do not comply, although the precise definition of “revenues” has not been settled and it remains to be seen whether “revenues” applies to South Korea alone or the global market. While there are still shortcomings in the law and complexities to iron out, it is undeniable that this new Korean law has ignited meaningful policy discussions over mobile app market practices around the world.

Inyoung Cheong is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Washington School of Law and former Deputy Director of the Korea Communications Commission. 

Antitrust Implications of Amazon’s Purported New Delivery Service

Amazon-Shopping-in-KenyaBy Gardner Reed

Amazon’s recent acquisition of Whole Foods has renewed the debate surrounding the proper role of antitrust regulation. The traditional approach to antitrust law aims to protect consumers by keeping prices down and quality up. The Whole Foods acquisition, along with the growing dominance of large tech firms such as Google, has helped popularize a new approach to antitrust: “hipster antitrust.” Hipster antitrust widens the objectives of traditional antitrust regulation, not only protecting consumers through fostering competition, but also using antitrust enforcement to attack problems such as economic inequality and environmental degradation. While the Federal Trade Commission promptly approved the Whole Foods acquisition, recent reports that Amazon is developing a delivery service to rival FedEX and UPS may raise a new round of competitive questions and continue the debate surrounding the proper role of antitrust regulation.

To begin, it is important to understand why Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods was not an antitrust violation. First, Amazon itself only sells a small amount of groceries and Whole Foods only accounts for two percent of the American grocery market. Second, the grocery market contains far larger and more entrenched competitors, such as Walmart with a twenty percent market share and Kroger with a seven percent share. Third, antitrust regulators, applying the traditional approach to antitrust, believe that fostering competition is the best way to promote low prices and high quality. Because this merger accounted for only a small share of the grocery market, consumers were left with plenty of competitive alternatives whether or not it led to lower prices or higher quality services.

However, recent reports indicate that Amazon is planning to launch a new delivery service similar to FedEX and UPS. According to Bloomberg, project “Seller Flex” began a trial run on the West Coast in 2017 with an expansion planned for 2018. The purpose of the system is to decrease the crowding in Amazon’s warehouses and increase the number of products available through two-day delivery. Under this new system, Amazon will directly oversee the pickup and delivery of packages from the warehouses of third-party merchants who market their items on Amazon.com. Traditionally, when delivering to end consumers, merchants had the choice to ship their products directly through Amazon or to use third-party carriers such as FedEX and UPS. Amazon may still elect to use FedEX and UPS to make deliveries, but merchants will no longer be able to make the decision on their own. Amazon expects that its increased control of the shipping process will allow it to save money through volume discounts, avoiding congestion, and increasing its flexibility.

By drawing comparisons with Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods it is possible to identify potential competitive concerns implicated by the new delivery system. The key difference is the amount of competitive power Amazon wields in each market. In the grocery market, Amazon is not an antitrust risk because it is a small player with only a two percent market share, which gives it essentially no ability to affect its competitors’ businesses or the market as a whole. In the e-commerce market, however, Amazon provides an essential platform and acts as a gateway for businesses to reach consumers across the United States. In the past, merchants could participate on Amazon’s platform, but retained the option to select their preference of delivery service. By requiring the use of its own delivery service, however, Amazon will be depriving its merchants of choice. Given Amazon’s power in the e-commerce market, merchants have limited alternatives to Amazon’s platform and thus may have no other realistic option outside of using Amazon’s in-house delivery service. This lack of competition in delivery methods could potentially raise end prices for consumers.

Ultimately, it is too early to predict the competitive effects of Amazon’s delivery service, but different schools of antitrust may reach different conclusions. Consistent with its track record, it is likely that Amazon will do everything in its power to lower prices and offer a better service by integrating delivery into its e-commerce platform. Under these circumstances, a traditional antitrust review would not likely find a problem. A review under “hipster antitrust”, however, may find a problem regardless of the cost or quality outcome. As part of a larger policy matter, such as protecting small businesses, Amazon’s acquisition of more power and the reduction of choice for its merchants may simply be unacceptable. Regardless of the outcome, Amazon’s continued expansion of its operations has all but guaranteed that it will remain a focus of antitrust discussions for the foreseeable future.

EU Antitrust Policy: Favoring Innovation over the Googles’ of the World

Picture1By Amela Zukic

As many of us have heard, the European Commission recently slapped Google with a 2.7-billon dollar antitrust fine for allegedly favoring its own comparison-shopping service, an illegal practice in the EU. Google now has 90 days to cease this practice or it could face a fine of up to 5% of the average daily worldwide turnover of its parent company, Alphabet. While many in the U.S. may reject this decision, the EU’s ruling reflects its underlying goal of fostering innovation and should not be quickly dismissed. Continue reading

Are We FINALLY Going to See Some Cool Cable Set-Top Boxes?

16-TiVo-PremiereBy Cheryl Lee

Consumers who were frustrated by the high cost of renting set-top boxes filed class-action lawsuits against several cable TV operators. The antitrust class action filed against Cox Communications was the first to go to trial. The complaint, in that case, alleged that Cox violated the Sherman Act by illegally tying its premium cable service to its set-top box rentals. It also alleged that Cox created barriers preventing other companies from offering third-party set-top boxes. The jury returned a $6.3M verdict against Cox Communications. Continue reading

Seattle Paves the Way for Ride-Sharing Drivers to Unionize

ride-shareBy Naazaneen Hodjat

The Seattle City Council voted unanimously last month to approve a bill that allows drivers of ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft to unionize. Seattle is the first U.S. city to pass such legislation. The legality of the ordinance, however, is uncertain; Uber and Lyft are expected to challenge its legality in court under both federal labor and antitrust laws. Continue reading