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Facebook’s Ill-Fated Fight Against Privacy as Apple Remains Firm

These days Apple seems determined about catering to the privacy concerns and needs of the users, making a point: user data sa

2010 was the golden age for social media. Not many people openly declared their hatred against platforms like Facebook. Rather, they were enjoying the convenience of social media, which killed our early internet-era habit of “surfing” the net.

People are no longer obliged to browse in-depth on the internet for information. A simple query on Twitter or a simple hashtag on Instagram for visual content would do the trick in a few clicks.

We, humans, have an evolutionary trait: everything we design ends up being organized in some form. Still, internet surfing and browsing for exciting new web pages are fun for several “old-school” users.

In the initial days of social media, we had witnessed another major revelation to a social media giant with a single tweet. It was so revelatory that we can’t imagine what it could lead to if Nick Bilton (1), the then-lead tech blogger for The New York Times’s Bit Blogs, tweeted it in 2021.

The Heated Row

As discussed in our previous article, Apple’s App Tracking Transparency and Feud with Facebook, this new feature allows Apple users to say no to having their data collected by applications. And Facebook is fuming about it since it could lead to a severe blow to its business model, generating profit with user data and advertising.

Their heated row focused on a unique device identifier on every iPhone and iPad, the IDFA, the identifier for advertisers. Businesses that sell phone ads, including Facebook, use this IDFA to target ads and estimate their effectiveness.

They can also pair the IDFA with other technologies like Facebook’s tracking cookies or pixels, which follow users around the internet to learn more about them.

However, when iOS 14.5 came out earlier this year, the new App Tracking Transparency feature is on by default. It forces app developers to take permission from users to use the IDFA explicitly (2).

Facebook’s internal survey suggests that about 80% of users will say no.

There is also a helpful tool (3) on Facebook if you wish to know how much Facebook already tracks you on other apps and websites.

Apple’s Motive

As we previously discussed, Apple has little interest in its users’ data because it makes a profit from selling its products and in-app purchases than from advertising Plus, the tech giant has always marketed itself as a privacy-first company.

Back in 2010, Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder, acknowledged that some people didn’t care about their shared data. However, businesses should always inform users about how they are using their data.

He states,

“in plain English, privacy means, people know what they are signing up for and ask them repeatedly, ask them every time.”

More recently, Tim Cook, Apple’s present CEO, what many saw as a thinly-veiled hint to Facebook (4), said: “if a business is constructed on misleading people, on data exploitation, on choices which are no choices at all, it does not deserve any praise. It deserves reform.”

Notably, Apple bakes privacy into its systems. Its Safari browser already blocks third-party cookies by default, and last year, Apple forced app providers in iOS to mention what data they collect in the App Store listings.

What’s Facebook Saying?

Facebook warns that the update could cut the profit earned via its ad network by half, which would hit small businesses the hardest (5).

It asserts that sharing data with ad agencies is crucial to give users “better experiences.”

Facebook further adds that Apple is hypocritical since it will push app developers to turn to subscriptions and other in-app payments for profit, from which Apple takes a share.

As Facebook often does when under pressure, it is on a PR offensive. The social media “king” took out adverts in national newspapers in December, featuring small business owners talking about how they only survived the COVID-19 pandemic because of target ads.

In its recent blog (6), Facebook seems to have accepted the changes and pledged “new advertiser experiences and measurement protocols.” It admitted the need to “evolve” how digital advertisers collect and use user data to one that will need “less data.”

Why Should Users Care?

In the past few years, regulators and governments have been increasingly concerned about how complex and big the ecosystem has become around apps, websites, and social media platforms.

Some points users need to consider:

  • An average app includes at least six third-party trackers exclusively to collect and share your data, as per a report Apple commissioned.
  • Some applications request access to more data than needed to offer their service. For instance, England’s former children’s commissioner has sued TikTok for collecting a huge amount of Children’s data (7).
  • The United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner’s Office investigates real-time bidding, the everyday auto-placement of billions of targeted digital ads on apps and web pages.
  • According to Cracked Labs research consultants, any one data broker has data on more than 700 million consumers (8).

Industry’s Opinion

Many experts in the industry believe that change is coming even without the iOS update.

According to Max Kalmykov, a technology consultant (9), advertisers needed to “be ready for the next, privacy-focused digital ads era.”

It may include contextual advertisements like fashion-related ads appearing only on fashion-based websites rather than randomly following users across the web.

Ad placements with influencers and podcasts is another non-intrusive advertising method, suggests Kalmykov.

Meanwhile, Apple claims that it supports the ad industry and has launched new free tools that allow advertisers to know the success of their campaigns without exposing individual users’ identities.

Other Ways to Track People

If one doesn’t have a unique number attached to a device, it does not mean that one can’t be tracked.

Device fingerprinting has certain attributes of a device like its operating system, the version and type of web browser, and the IP address of a device for its unique identification. While it is an imperfect art, it is gaining traction in the ad world.

The FLoC, Federated Learning of Cohorts, may sound like something from a sci-fi novel but is an idea from Google about keeping track of people in a privacy-friendly way.

Their idea is that a FLoC-enabled browser would collect data about users’ browsing habits and assign them to a flock or group with similar browsing histories. Each will share an ID, indicating their interests to advertisers.

According to The Verge (10), Mozilla Firefox and others are not keen on the scheme. While Electronic Frontiers Foundation, privacy advocates stated that it is a “terrible idea” and asked Google to ensure that browsers “work for users instead of advertisers.”

Privacy Matters

While we know why privacy should matter, some – like Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg like it hot.

The company of the young billionaire is so controversial that its list of privacy scandals (11) it has been involved with so far is as lengthy as the checklist of a Pentagon staffer after Kim Jong-un blasts another missile into the Sea of Japan.

NYT’s Nick Bilton stated in his famous tweet in 2010: “Off the record chat with a Facebook staff. Me: How does Mark Zuckerberg feel about privacy? Response: (laughter) He does not believe in it.”

Facebook vs Apple
Source: Wired

Now that’s pretty problematic from head to toe. While people often make mistakes, they can change their worldviews and mindsets and correct their wrongdoings. However, this is Facebook we are talking about.

The tech giant has been issuing countless apologies for over two decades now, adding one mistake after another, privacy scandals, and disappointments to its list of utter shamelessness. The company feeds on user data, relies on it, yet continues to betray people’s confidence, to whom the data belong.

If we look at Google, for example, it is by no means perfect. It has anti-privacy at its core as well (12). There are several concerns about its “shady” business practices, alleged ties to intelligence organizations, and privacy scandals. However, it is nowhere near Facebook’s reputation bankruptcy. In comparison to Facebook, Google has so far given more confidence to its users.

Now, let’s set aside Facebook’s comic behavior when it “declared” its commitment to user data safety and take a look at its feud with Apple.

Apple Has Weaponized Privacy Concerns – For Good

Apple is yet another tech behemoth without a privacy clean record. Especially because of the iCloud data leak (13). Apple is again by no means perfect. However, it has the cleanest record of all and continues to be, at least, fighting for privacy, be it for its own sake or not.

It is presumed in a capitalist world. It is a clash of concerns and needs, each one of which one can utilize to generate capital. However, the way Apple has decided to arise financially looks more like a mutualistic way of doing things, which also works out in consumers’ favor who care about their privacy.

Of course, Apple is a for-profit company, and it is here to make money. For Apple, financial gain is above anything else. No one believed when the company removed the charger from the iPhone 12’s box over climate concerns. Yes, it was a sale tactic (14). However, it is also Apple that is weaponizing concerns over privacy.

While we can never be 100% sure whether Apple is implementing every pro-privacy move and feature it promises. However, history has indicated that the iOS side has witnessed only a fraction of privacy issues and cybersecurity threats compared to Android. And with the latest iOS version, 14.5, the tech giant has rolled out a new feature: ATT, App Tracking Transparency.

It is a feature that comes with iOS and iPad OS products that have the latest software update. The company also announced the same news to the public with a hard-hitting ad that emphasized why privacy is important. So much that it even caused Facebook to lose its sleep.

As discussed, ATT needs apps installed on the device to use users for permission if app developers want to track users’ activity across other platforms and apps. Usually, apps track users’ activity on their devices to push personalized ads, sell their ad profile to third-party ad agencies, essentially turning users into products for their clients, who are always quenching for more customers.

For instance, if you like to attend auctions, the ad agency will show you the recent procures at Sotheby’s; on the other hand, if you are into camping, you will see brand new tools while switching between Instagram reels and stories.

Nonetheless, ATT is Facebook’s biggest nightmare as it can annihilate the social media giant’s lifeline and collapse its business model. With billions of Apple users across the globe, that is worrisome.

And lately, Facebook’s concerns have been justified. New research by the Verizon-owned company Flurry Analytics revealed that only 4% of all Apple users in the United States had accepted the tracking by Facebook’s hungry algorithms and cookies (15).

If Facebook Fails to Comply, It will Lose to Apple

No matter how crucial Facebook’s billions-strong user base is, there is a straightforward facet: Apple is important in today’s and possibly even tomorrow’s tech scene that Zuckerberg and his team will be obliged to comply with it.

And one only needs to take a look at Apple’s Fortnite removal from the App Store. The tech giant took off the fame from the store in the blink of an eye in reply to Epic Game’s move to roll out its own payment system, a clear violation of the App Store rules. And that response came when more than 30 million people played the game daily (16).

The issue, which Apple’s legal authorities in the United States are handling right now, lost the tech giant so much money that it could have founded a small tech company with the amount it would make if Fortnite had remained on the App Store (17).

It is also well known that several users decide to make their payments from their Apple devices even though they used the same account on their Xbox or PlayStation. It is a telling on its own indeed. It clearly illustrates that people trust Apple more than Microsoft and Sony and choose to pay over the App Store.

In a way, Apple has proven that it is financially sustainable and courageous enough to be able to lose so much profit.

And since Facebook has a huge user base, including those on WhatsApp and Instagram, which is several times larger than Fortnite, we believe that Apple will not make the daring move to remove all Facebook applications from the App Store. Albeit, not so easily and quickly, however unpleasant it may be.

Even if Apple does not find the courage to do it, one only needs to stop and think for a second: Who will lose the most in this fight? A company that depends heavily on hardware sales, or a company that depends heavily on every bit of users’ data?

There is a simple answer to this: the loser will clearly be Zuck in the fight.

And the situation that seems even direr for Facebook is the strong foundation that keeps Apple users in Apple’s walled garden, aka, the Apple ecosystem (18).

The case we are trying to make is that capitalism is all about needs, luxury, and concerns. People require gadgets to adapt to modern life, and Apple also offers luxury, which comes with its exorbitant price tag. Additionally, Apple also offers budget-focused devices. However, most importantly, Apple caters to privacy-savvy users’ concerns, a lifeline of people growing more aware and conscious of such threats.

We can also say that, in a sense, Apple is taking advantage of people’s concerns, which is highly likely to be true and even slightly unethical. However, in the end, privacy has a higher value for every individual on the planet than the perceived advantage of personalized ads for products, people do not even require.

Facebook is bound to lose in this battle because it is on the side of “evil” or the side of advertising agencies hankering for more customers. Apple, on the other hand, is on the side of what indeed matters, whether it only cares about privacy for the sake of financial gains or not.