Apple, Epic Games claimed on the opening day of this month’s landmark antitrust trial, is operating a “walled garden.” Its prize flower? “The Venus fly trap.” The metaphor is decidedly hyperbolic – but there’s a little truth to it, too. The same could be said of Epic’s suit, in which arguments concluded this week.

Epic sued Apple after its blockbuster video game “Fortnite” was exiled from the iOS app store for including an alternative payment option to bypass the 30 percent commission Apple customarily takes on sales. By breaking the highly controversial rules, Epic achieved the double opportunity to take Apple to the court of law as well as the court of public opinion. Winning the legal case was always going to be difficult given this country’s competition jurisprudence – but this fight has always been about something bigger.

Establishing that Apple is a monopoly is essential to Epic’s argument, and indeed attorneys and witnesses wrangled for days over defining the relevant market: the very wide world of game distribution, or the much smaller realm of iOS app distribution, in which Apple is the only contender? Even if Epic prevails there, it must further establish that Apple is abusing whatever monopoly it has. Epic says that’s happening in two ways: Apple is forcing developers to use the app store rather than allowing users to “sideload” apps onto their phones through other services, and it is forcing developers to use its payment processing system complete with that 30 percent cut.

The second contention is more compelling. Apple has a good case that any anticompetitive effects of its iron grip over downloads are outweighed by the pro-consumer benefits of privacy and security it can ensure through careful (if imperfect) software review. Apple has a much harder time explaining how it’s better for anyone except Apple that developers must either stomach the cost of a commission or dispense with in-app purchases entirely – especially when the products they are selling have little to do with the particular capabilities of the iPhone. Worse still, developers with scant name recognition have to hope that users will seek out their websites to subscribe or buy services, because Apple won’t even let them direct the consumers to the right place.

This case, in the end, is less about quibbling over market definiton and percentage amounts than it is about the broader antitrust reckoning taking place today: What rules should apply to the companies that play the role of gatekeepers in the digital economy? What is fair dealing, and what is not? When does helping consumers justify harming competitors, and do some behaviors always do damage to both? U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers could deliver an answer on a narrow version of these matters by August, but Congress may soon develop its own theory of how Big Tech should be permitted to leverage its bigness. Apple, meanwhile, could decide to check itself when it comes to in-app sales –and win, at least in the eyes of those it serves.


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