The European Commission has accused Apple of restricting rivals' access to the technology behind its mobile payment system Apple Pay, as it steps up its investigations into suspected violations of EU antitrust rules.
The EU's executive arm said on Monday it had sent a charge sheet known as a statement of objections to Apple, detailing how the company had abused its dominant position in markets for mobile wallets on iOS devices.
The antitrust case could result in a hefty fine for the iPhone maker and force it to open its contactless payment technology to competitors.
Mobile wallets rely on near-field communication, or NFC, which uses a chip in the mobile device to wirelessly communicate with a merchant’s payment terminal.
The commission said Apple Pay is by far the largest NFC-based mobile wallet on the market and accused the company of denying others access to the popular technology.
It said the practice “has an exclusionary effect on competitors and leads to less innovation and less choice for consumers for mobile wallets on iPhones.”
"We have indications that Apple restricted third-party access to key technology necessary to develop rival mobile wallet solutions on Apple's devices," EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager said.
"In our statement of objections, we preliminarily found that Apple may have restricted competition, to the benefit of its own solution Apple Pay," she said.
In a statement, Apple said it would continue to engage with the Commission "to ensure European consumers have access to the payment option of their choice in a safe and secure environment".
"We designed Apple Pay to provide an easy and secure way for users to digitally present their existing payment cards and for banks and other financial institutions to offer contactless payments for their customers," the company said.
"Apple Pay is only one of many options available to European consumers for making payments, and has ensured equal access to NFC while setting industry-leading standards for privacy and security".
Vestager said the EU takes security issues very seriously, but insisted that the bloc's investigation didn't reveal evidence that security risks would increase if access were to be granted to third parties.
“On the contrary, evidence on our file indicates that Apple’s conduct cannot be justified by security concerns," she said.
Why is the EU criticising Apple Pay?
Apple Pay is Apple's own mobile wallet solution on iPhones and iPads, used to enable mobile payments in physical stores and online.
Its NFC "tap and go" technology is embedded on Apple mobile devices for payments in stores, allowing communication between a mobile phone and payments terminals in stores.
The Commission accuses Apple of restricting third-party access to this technology, to the benefit of its own solution.
"The Commission's preliminary view is that Apple's dominant position in the market for mobile wallets on its operating system iOS, restricts competition, by reserving access to NFC technology to Apple Pay," it said in a statement.
"If confirmed, such a conduct would be illegal under our competition rules,” Vestager said.
The Commission didn't say how big the fines could be if the charges against Apple were ultimately upheld. It added that its statement of objections does not prejudge the outcome of an investigation.
The case is one of several investigations opened against Apple by EU regulators.
They are also looking into whether the company has been violating the bloc’s antitrust laws by distorting competition for music streaming by imposing unfair rules for rival services in its App Store.