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Interview: Who is Together We Fight Society, the little-known NGO taking on Apple in India?

The TWFS President talks to MediaNama about their antitrust case over Apple’s App Store practices.

A few days back, news emerged that a non-profit called Together We Fight Society (TWFS) filed an antitrust complaint against Apple over its App Store practices with the Competition Commission of India (CCI). But not much was known about the organisation. MediaNama had a chat with CA Shivani Dharnia, President, TWFS, to learn more about the organisation.

Read: Apple Faces Another Antitrust Complaint Over App Store, This Time In India

When was TWFS founded and what does it do?

CA Shivani Dharnia: We were formally incorporated under the provisions of the Rajasthan Societies Registration Act, 1958 in May 2021. The NGO was established for a charitable purpose that aims to take up Public Interest Litigations (‘PIL’) for important public issues including fighting corruption, promoting transparency, and protecting the environment.

Who heads the organisation and where is it based?

CA Shivani Dharnia: The NGO is headed by me and is currently based in Jaipur but we are soon planning to have an office in Delhi too.

Can you give more details on the work TWFS has done so far?

CA Shivani Dharnia:

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  • Before Apple, we had filed Case No. 20 of 2021 before the Competition Commission of India, pertaining to the alleged cartelisation in installation and maintenance of reverse osmosis plant in Rajasthan by near about 8 national firms causing loss to the exchequer. The same was also recognised by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Commission has ordered a further investigation under the provisions of Section 26(1) of the Competition Act, 2002.
  • We have also taken up the cause of two government societies that are facing the brunt (environment degradation, vibration, noice and air pollution) of Central Vista Project in heart of the capital. The project contractors namely, Ahluwalia Contracts India Limited and Swadeshi Civil Infrastructure Pvt. Ltd. Both the Companies have already been served with Legal notices and within some time we would be moving our petition before National Green Tribunal (‘NGT’).
  • Besides the aforesaid, we are also promoting transparency using legal tools such as RTI etc.

What led TWFS to file an antitrust complaint against Apple with CCI?

CA Shivani Dharnia: Considering the gatekeeper nature of Apple in app ecosystem, we decided to seek a legal remedy to bring change in the abusive conduct of Apple (that directly and indirectly impacts everyone considering the current situation of Nomophobia). In our fight against Apple, we seek the support of Indian start-ups/Atmanirbhar Digital India Foundation (‘ADIF’), which counts the likes of Paytm, GOQii, Bharat Matrimony, MapMyIndia etc. so that the complaint can reach its logical conclusion.

Can you give more details on the issues highlighted in the complaint?

CA Shivani Dharnia: To give a bird’s eye view of the complaint, the main allegations are as follows:

  1. The issue pertaining to 30% in-app purchase fee (I prefer to call it ‘Apple Tax’) that has not only impacted the start-ups but also impacted the end consumers in terms of payment of high price as consumer finally bears the brunt of Apple Tax.
  2. Restriction on the app developers that they cannot communicate to users about alternative purchasing options of the same product from website where app developers don’t have to pay 30% Apple Tax.
  3. The petition has also highlighted the capricious, whimsical nature of the App Store policy that may lead to either suspension/removal of the apps from App Store (without applying the same rules on Apple’s own vertical offering i.e., like Apple Maps, Apple Music etc.).
  4. Any suspension (in context of 3rd issue) from the App Store leads to loss of revenue, reputation for the start-ups.
  5. Lastly, we have also highlighted that Apple sets the rules of the game (‘App Store Review Guidelines’), where it is not only the player (Apple’s own Apps within the App Store) but also the umpire (Apple is the adjudicator that is whether to suspend/remove an App from the App Store).

Given Apple’s very low market share in India (3 percent), why has TFWS targetted Apple?

CA Shivani Dharnia: It’s a myth that Apple is not a dominant enterprise and not impacting the consumers or start-ups. It’s the only player operating in the field of the non-licensable smart mobile OS with almost 95% market share, while Android caters to the licensable smart mobile OS, which is a different segment in itself. The anti-trust scrutiny against Apple will have a profound impact on start-ups particularly those who have to develop the Apps not only for Google’s Play Store but Apple’s App Store to remain relevant in the market. Moreover, we have also highlighted in our information/complaint that per user revenue for any app on Apple’s App Store is more than that of Google’s Play Store, so it is a cash-rich business for apps/ start-ups. Thus, just because Apple has an overall low market share its abusive conduct can’t be given a short shrift.

Why hasn’t TWFS gone after Google which has a larger market share in India?

CA Shivani Dharnia: Google is already in soup and is facing an anti-trust case before the Competition Commission of India (Case No. 07 of 2020 available here ). Thus, it does not make sense to file two separate cases on the same issue.

Has Apple reached out to TWFS regarding this complaint?

CA Shivani Dharnia: No.

What regulations do you think the government should introduce to address issues in the apps market?

CA Shivani Dharnia: We think the matter should be left to the wisdom of the sectoral regulator like CCI who are well equipped and possess the expertise to tackle such issues. A legislative initiative to curb such abusive conduct (as there in South Korea) seems like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Does TWFS currently have plans to go after more tech companies?

CA Shivani Dharnia: – Yes, we will be taking heads on other Big Tech too in coming months we have already started preparing a water-tight case against two more Big Tech firms.

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