U.S. hits Apple with landmark antitrust suit, accusing tech giant of stifling competition

Washington — Apple Inc., one of the world’s most valuable and influential companies, illegally engaged in anti-competitive behavior in an effort to build a “moat around its smartphone monopoly” and maximize its profits at the expense of consumers, the Justice Department alleged in a blockbuster antitrust lawsuit filed Thursday.

In a complaint filed in federal district court in New Jersey, the Justice Department accused the company of using its app development rules, iPhone features and hardware that customers use every day — including iMessage, Apple Wallet and smartwatches — to thwart competition and expand its business by charging higher prices. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia joined the Justice Department as plaintiffs in the suit.

“Apple has maintained monopoly power in the smartphone market not simply by staying ahead of the competition on the merits, but by violating federal antitrust law,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in remarks at Justice Department headquarters. “Consumers should not have to pay higher prices because companies break the law.”

The Apple antitrust suit

Attorney General Merrick Garland announces an antitrust suit against Apple at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., on March 21, 2024. Attorney General Merrick Garland announces an antitrust suit against Apple at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., on March 21, 2024. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

In their 88-page complaint, government attorneys alleged Apple violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, including by employing “a series of shapeshifting rules and restrictions in its App Store guidelines and developer agreements that would allow Apple to extract higher fees, thwart innovation, offer a less secure or degraded user experience, and throttle competitive alternatives.” 

Specifically, investigators alleged the tech giant — which brought in nearly $400 billion in revenue last year — boxed out its smaller competitors by blocking the expansion of so-called “super apps” that provide identical services across devices; disrupting messaging formats and capabilities between Apple and non-Apple devices; and monopolizing the use of tap-to-pay functions on iPhones to only the Apple Wallet.

Users have long been frustrated by discrepancies when sending messages between Apple and non-Apple products, including lower media quality, diminished editing capabilities and even different colors for the messages themselves. Garland said those issues were examples of Apple degrading users’ experience to entice them to stay in the company’s ecosystem.

“As any iPhone user who has ever seen a green text message or received a grainy, tiny video can attest, Apple’s anti-competitive conduct also includes making it more difficult for iPhone users to message with users of non-Apple products,” he said. “It does this by diminishing the functionality of its own messaging app, and by diminishing the functionality of third-party messaging apps.”

Apple’s alleged anti-competitive practices did not stop there, however, according to investigators. They also allegedly worked to stifle the use of non-Apple smartwatches by limiting how users interacted with them on the iPhone and used cloud streaming, location services and web browsers on iPhones to snuff out smaller rivals. 

“Critically, Apple’s anticompetitive conduct not only limits competition in the smartphone market, but also reverberates through the industries that are affected by these restrictions, including financial services, fitness, gaming, social media, news media, entertainment, and more,” the complaint alleged. “Unless Apple’s anticompetitive and exclusionary conduct is stopped, it will likely extend and entrench its iPhone monopoly to other markets and parts of the economy.”

The government asked the court to order Apple to cease its allegedly anti-competitive activity and stop undermining cross-platform services and hardware. The plaintiffs said the court should take action needed to “restore competitive conditions in the markets affected by Apple’s unlawful conduct.”

In response to the suit, Apple said in a statement that the litigation “threatens who we are and the principles that set Apple products apart in fiercely competitive markets.”

“If successful, it would hinder our ability to create the kind of technology people expect from Apple — where hardware, software, and services intersect. It would also set a dangerous precedent, empowering government to take a heavy hand in designing people’s technology,” the company said. “We believe this lawsuit is wrong on the facts and the law, and we will vigorously defend against it.”

Apple is not the first behemoth in the tech space to face scrutiny from the Justice Department’s antitrust division. Over the last few years, Google has faced two lawsuits — one during the Trump administration and another during President Biden’s administration — that alleged monopolistic business practices.

Jo Ling Kent and Andres Triay contributed reporting.

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Robert Legare

Robert Legare is a CBS News multiplatform reporter and producer covering the Justice Department, federal courts and investigations. He was previously an associate producer for the “CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell.”

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