Apple faces FCC scrutiny over Beeper Mini shutdown

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Apple’s decision to block Beeper Mini, a service that enabled iMessage on Android devices, has sparked controversy and criticism from regulators and users alike. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner Brendan Carr has called for an investigation into whether Apple violated the FCC’s rules on accessibility and usability of advanced communications services.

What is Beeper Mini and how did Apple shut it down?

Beeper Mini was a service launched by Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky in December 2023, which claimed to have reverse-engineered the iMessage stack to make it work on Android. The service allowed Android users to send and receive “blue bubble” messages from their Android devices, including using the phone number on that device. At launch, it could even work without an Apple ID.

However, Apple soon took notice of Beeper Mini and started blocking its access to iMessage. Beeper Mini tried to find workarounds, but Apple kept shutting them down. Eventually, Beeper Mini gave up its attempts to make iMessage work on Android, calling the efforts “unsustainable”. Apple also banned some users’ Macs for using Beeper Mini, effectively cutting off their access to iMessage altogether.

Why did Carr call for an investigation into Apple?

Carr spoke about the Beeper Mini saga during the State of the Net Conference, and posted a clip of his remarks on Twitter. He said that the FCC should investigate whether Apple violated its Part 14 rules, which outline that “advanced communications service” should be “accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities”.

Apple faces FCC scrutiny

Carr argued that Beeper Mini promoted some of those principles by enabling interoperability and compatibility between iOS and Android messaging. He also said that Apple’s design choices, such as using low-contrast green bubbles for SMS messages, made it difficult for people with low vision or color blindness to read them.

Carr cited a section of the rules that says that providers, such as Apple, “shall not install network features, functions, or capabilities that impede accessibility or usability”. He also pointed out another section that says that “no person shall be liable for a violation of the requirements of the rules in this part with respect to advanced communications services or equipment used to provide or access advanced communications services” and specifically mentions “transient storage the communications made available through the provision of advanced communications services by a third party”.

What are the implications of Carr’s call for investigation?

Carr’s call for investigation adds to the pressure on Apple over its decision to block Beeper Mini. In December, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers requested the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Apple’s “potential anticompetitive treatment” of Beeper, saying that “interoperability and interconnections have long been key drivers of competition and consumer choice in communications services”. Senator Elizabeth Warren also criticized Apple’s move at that time.

If the FCC decides to launch a formal investigation into Apple, it could result in fines, injunctions, or other remedies. It could also set a precedent for how the FCC regulates advanced communications services and their accessibility and usability for people with disabilities. Moreover, it could challenge Apple’s control over its messaging ecosystem and its ability to exclude third-party services from accessing it.

Apple has not commented on Carr’s call for investigation or the Beeper Mini issue. The company has previously defended its iMessage exclusivity as a way to protect user privacy and security.

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