Google formed 'Fortnite Task Force' in response to Epic Game's moves

The task force latched onto a potential security problem for users installing Fortnite outside of Google's app store, Epic said. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK/SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - Google was so worried about Epic Games sidestepping its app store with Fortnite that it created a task force to confront the issue, according to a legal filing by the game developer.

The task force was created after Epic began offering an Android version of the hugely popular game through Samsung Electronics's Galaxy Store and directly through Epic's website in 2018, giving users a way to bypass the Google Play store, according to the filing.

Epic's efforts to avoid paying commissions on app stores from Google and Apple reached a flashpoint last year when both companies removed Fortnite and the game's creator sued them. The legal showdown has helped to draw criticism and regulatory scrutiny to the app store policies of Alphabet's Google and Apple, which are seen as a dominant force in mobile software.

In October, Google counter sued, arguing that Epic pushed an "unapproved" version of Fortnite on Android phones that placed users at risk. Google has said that its app store is not a monopoly since the company allows other stores to run on Android devices, unlike Apple.

On Monday, Epic responded with a forceful rebuttal of Google's claims. That filing included details about Google's "Fortnite Task Force", which was meant to help cope with the game bypassing its app store. The group met daily in 2018, according to Epic, which cited internal Google documents.

As part of its work, the task force latched onto a potential security problem for users installing Fortnite outside of Google's app store, Epic said.

Typically in such scenarios, Google gives the app maker 90 days to repair any flaws before publicising them. But within nine days, Google took the information to "friendlies" in the media, according to the filing.

"Instead, disregarding the security of users, Google rushed to 'get the word out,'" according to the filing. The idea was to "deter developers from launching outside of Google Play and maintain Google's monopoly over Android app distribution".

Google defended its actions in its own statement Monday.

"Epic released Fortnite on Android with security vulnerabilities that could compromise consumers' data," spokesman Peter Schottenfels said.

"Safety and security are our top priorities, so of course we took steps to warn our users about this security flaw, in accordance with our App Security policy. We'll continue to fight Epic's claims in court."

According to the filing, Google's own software engineers felt its security warnings about the app installation were overblown. In an e-mail, the head of Android security wrote that the message to users "really does seem inappropriately dire", Epic said.

Apple must be stopped and Google's 'crazy': epic CEO

Meanwhile, Epic's chief executive officer Tim Sweeney renewed his attack on the duopoly power of Apple and Google as the world's dominant mobile platforms at a conference in Seoul Tuesday.

"Apple locks a billion users into one store and payment processor," Mr Sweeney said at the Global Conference for Mobile Application Ecosystem Fairness in South Korea, home to the world's first law requiring mobile platforms to give users a choice of payment handlers. "Now, Apple complies with oppressive foreign laws, which surveil users and deprive them of political rights. But Apple is ignoring laws passed by Korea's democracy. Apple must be stopped."

Google also earned a strong rebuke from Mr Sweeney, who criticised its approach of charging fees on payments it does not process as "crazy".

Praising South Korea for leading the fight against anti-competitive practices with its recent legislation, the Epic founder said: "I'm very proud to stand up against these monopolies with you. I'm proud to stand with you and say I'm a Korean."

The Google Play Store service fee "has never been simply for payment processing", Google spokesman Dan Jackson said in an e-mailed response. "It's how we provide Android and Google Play for free and invest in the many distribution, development, and security services that support developers and consumers in South Korea and around the world."

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Apple and Google have consistently said that the fees they charge on purchases via their mobile marketplaces help provide security for users and a global audience for developers. Mr Sweeney sees their exclusionary practices as anathema to the founding principles of the Web, arguing that their "policies are so restrictive that if the worldwide web had been embedded after the smartphone, then Apple and Google would have blocked all Web browsers from being released on their platforms".

Epic operates its own Epic Games Store for PC gamers, which also charges a platform fee, albeit a lower one, and Mr Sweeney does not dispute Google and Apple's right to profit from their work.

"There's a store market, there's a payments market, and there are many other related markets," he said. "And it's critical that antitrust enforcement not allow a monopolist in one market to use their control of that market to impose control over unrelated markets."

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