EU fines Apple €500m in Spotify showdown

The fine, a first for Apple, seems large, but it's far less than the proposed $40B, which is 10% of the tech giant's yearly revenue.
19 February 2024

Brussels regulators investigated Apple following a Spotify complaint, leading to a hefty penalty. (Photo by Tobias Schwarz/AFP)

  • Brussels regulators investigated Apple following a Spotify complaint, leading to a hefty penalty.
  • The EU focused on the rule by Apple preventing app developers from linking to outside subscription sign-up pages.
  • The battle between Spotify and Apple has been ongoing for years – and Apple is expected to vigoroulsy appeal.

A colossal clash has between two industry behemoths – streaming powerhouse Spotify and tech titan Apple – has been unfolding for months. Spotify has leveled charges of anti-competitive behavior against Apple, contending that the Silicon Valley giant employs its market dominance to throttle competition and hobble rival services. But it’s not just the combatants locked in this struggle; European regulators have also stepped onto the battlefield, poised to challenge Apple’s stronghold over its app store empire. 

Spotify argues that Apple’s strict regulations and steep fees are barriers to competition, stifling creativity and limiting consumer options. The contentious issue of the “Apple tax” looms large – a term coined to describe the substantial commission fees exacted by Apple on in-app purchases. 

For Spotify, this translates to navigating a landscape where every musical note played carries a hefty price tag, jeopardizing its ability to maintain a competitive edge and sustain profitability. Beyond financial concerns, Spotify alleges that Apple’s influence permeates the user experience, with accusations of preferential treatment towards its music streaming service, Apple Music, fueling claims of anti-competitive behavior and igniting industry-wide debate and dissent.

At the forefront of Spotify’s battle is CEO Daniel Ek, who’a spearheading the fight against what he views as Apple’s monopolistic grip on the music streaming sector. In an October 2023 op-ed for the UK’s (avowedly right-wing) Daily Mail, Ek condemned Apple’s imposition of a 30% tax and restrictive regulations on developers, many of whom played pivotal roles in shaping iOS into its current form. Ek also highlighted Apple’s shifting stance towards these developers, now seen as adversaries by the tech giant.

Daniel Ek, Founder & CEO, Spotify, makes progress in his Apple battle. (Photo by Noam Galai/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/Getty Images via AFP).

Daniel Ek, Founder & CEO, Spotify, makes progress in his Apple battle. (Photo by Noam Galai/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/Getty Images via AFP).

Frustrated by what he sees as Apple’s anti-competitive practices, Ek has not shied away from taking his concerns public. In a bold move, Spotify filed a complaint with the European Commission in December 2023, alleging that Apple’s behavior violates EU competition law. The legal battle has ever since underscored the high stakes involved. Neither Apple not Spotify has shown a willingness to blink first.

For Ek, the fight against Apple is more than just a business dispute – it’s allegedly a matter of principle, inasmuch as such things can be said to apply to big business. Ek claims to envision a future where innovation flourishes in “a fair and open marketplace,” where consumers have genuine choice, and competition breeds excellence. To achieve this vision, Ek remains steadfast in his commitment to holding Apple accountable for its actions and advocating for a level playing field for all players in the music streaming industry.

This of course should not detract from Spotify’s own pitiful remuneration of artists who appear on the streaming platform. There are matters of principle and matters of profit involved in both companies’ operations – and it’s rare that they can be counted on to intersect.

What is the outcome for Apple and Spotify in the EU?

Before the latest complaint filed in December 2023, Spotify lodged an official antitrust grievance with the European Commission nearly four years ago, citing Apple’s anti-competitive practices that impeded innovation and detrimentally affected developers and consumers globally, especially in Europe. Despite the passage of time, the situation remains essentially unchanged, according to the streaming giant.

Spotify noted that the absence of definitive regulatory intervention has encouraged Apple to persist in its questionable conduct. Despite a growing chorus of advocates clamoring for action, regulators have been slow to act decisively, leaving a palpable frustration among stakeholders.

Before the complaint was filed two months ago, Spotify and seven other companies and organizations in sectors including publishing, audio streaming, dating, communications, and marketplaces sent a joint letter in January 2023 to call for meaningful regulatory action against Apple’s long-standing allegedly anti-competitive European practices.

After much back and forth between regulators and the tech giants, on February 19, 2024, the bloc announced its intention to fine Apple for allegedly breaching EU law concerning access to its music streaming services. This historic penalty marks a pivotal moment in the ongoing battle between regulatory authorities and Silicon Valley giants, underscoring the EU’s commitment to enforcing fair competition practices in the digital realm.

The EU’s decision to impose its first-ever fine on Apple also sends a clear message to the tech industry: compliance with EU regulations is non-negotiable. Reports indicate that this development follows a protracted investigation by EU authorities, drawing on insights from five individuals intimately familiar with the case. Their direct knowledge sheds light on the intricate details of the long-running probe, revealing the meticulous scrutiny of Apple’s business practices.

“In a closed-door meeting between EU officials and Apple in June last year, the tech firm told regulators it had already addressed any possible competition concerns arising from Spotify’s complaint,” a report by Bloomberg reads. For Apple, although accustomed to navigating complex regulatory landscapes, this fine represents a significant setback. 

When contacted for comment, Bloomberg also noted that Apple referred to a previous statement, which said that the “App Store has helped Spotify become the top music streaming service across Europe.” The translation of that terse statement is that Apple is expected to vigorously challenge the fine, using its formidable legal and financial resources to defend its practices. Nevertheless, the EU’s unwavering stance underscores the imperative of upholding fair competition principles to safeguard consumer choice and innovation within the digital ecosystem. 

This decision has broader implications for the tech industry. As the tech landscape continues to evolve, this fine against Apple is a poignant reminder of the regulatory challenges confronting industry titans. With the EU leading the charge in enforcing antitrust laws, the repercussions of this decision will surely reverberate across the global tech industry, shaping the future of digital competition and regulation for years to come.