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Apple-Fortnite clash exposes a major weakness of digital payments

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Apple's legal dispute with Epic Games, the publisher of Fortnite, has exposed a potential nuclear option that the Cupertino, Calif.-based tech giant can use against any company that sells online.

In mid-August, Epic kicked off a major legal battle with Apple by defying App Store policy on how to accept payments. Apple responded both by kicking Epic/Fortnite off the App Store and by countersuing Epic over its breach of terms. There's one more thing Apple was thought to have done — remove the "Sign In with Apple" option from Epic accounts — that could be devastating to any merchant.

According to Epic, this was about to happen on Sept. 11, but a day ahead of the cutoff Epic clarified on Twitter this wasn't going to happen. Whether this was a miscommunication or a threat that Apple didn't follow through on, the fallout was immediately clear.

Sign In with Apple isn't an iPhone-only tool. Epic also uses it on the web, so an Apple customer who goes on to buy PC games might still use Sign In with Apple from a Windows computer. If Apple had gone through with revoking Sign In with Apple, users would have no other login option available if they never provided a separate email address, since the default for Sign In with Apple users would be xxx@privaterelay.appleid.com.

The only choice is to ask for human intervention. "If you were unable to update your email address prior to 'Sign In with Apple' support ending and are no longer seeing 'Sign In with Apple' as a login option, we still may be able to recover your account manually," Epic says on its website.

Removing a third-party sign-in is a bigger deal than simply removing a payment option from the point of sale. While Epic supports more than half a dozen ways to sign into its accounts (including Facebook, Google, Xbox Live, PlayStation, Nintendo and Steam), Apple is likely the default option for people who play its games primarily on Apple devices. Losing sign-in support could create a major customer service headache for any company that sells to Apple customers either on iOS or on the web.

If a payment option such as Apple Pay were to disappear, or a bank canceled the customer's credit card, they could simply use an alternative method if they have one available. If Sign In with Apple disappears — and the consumer didn't anticipate this happening — their entire relationship with the merchant gets cut off, including access to purchase history such as digital games.

The coronavirus pandemic is encouraging more people to make use of digital payment options, and Apple's ecosystem offers many ways to bring underbanked consumers into the financial ecosystem. People can get a digital Apple Card in moments using the built-in Wallet app, then use Apple Pay right away to start spending. Sign In with Apple provides the same immediacy for consumers who are starting new digital relationships with the merchants that support it.

In this way, Apple is not only a gateway to digital payments, but a gatekeeper. And Epic has just demonstrated how to get that gate shut not only on itself but on every Sign In with Apple customer that does business with it on any platform.

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