Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Gorge

While many news organizations were satisfied with covering today’s launch of App Tracking Transparency in iOS 14.5 as a feature that, at most, illustrates a key difference between Apple and Facebook, for example, Mike Isaac and Jack Nicas of the New York Times decided to write a parallel article about the apparently fractured relationship between the companies’ CEOs. And it is a doozy.

I do not like these kinds of articles at the best of times. Regardless of how closely executives are tied to the companies they are involved with, I do not think there is much value in seeing them as inextricably linked. I do not think we can extrapolate personal animosity from competitiveness, and I think the CEO-as-celebrity narrative is a worrisome premise.

So this is the kind of article that I am going to approach with trepidation. Sure enough, it is chock full of anecdotes that do not simply portray Apple and Facebook as two companies that have some competitive overlap and very different approaches to privacy, but an “all-out war” between two bitter enemies in Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg. I did not learn much but, as I re-read the article, a single paragraph stuck out:

Those contrasts have widened with their deeply divergent visions for the digital future. Mr. Cook wants people to pay a premium — often to Apple — for a safer, more private version of the internet. It is a strategy that keeps Apple firmly in control. But Mr. Zuckerberg champions an “open” internet where services like Facebook are effectively free. In that scenario, advertisers foot the bill.

This reads like a Facebook PR person has spun it already, since it is the distillation of the company’s false compromise between privacy and revenue. It also misrepresents how lock-in and opt-in work on the internet.

If you want to talk about control over the internet, you really have to start with Facebook, Google — and, to a lesser extent, Amazon. All three companies insidiously lock people into their data-mining platforms without presenting a real means of consent or opting out. In addition to being de facto infrastructure, these companies never really stop tracking you. They can stop showing you ads based on the personalized data they have collected, but they may continue to slurp up behavioural information anyhow. And that’s only the three biggest companies in this space; there are thousands of other ad tech businesses and data brokers gorging themselves on data you never meaningfully consented to sharing.

Apple’s apparent control over the internet is comparatively meagre. If you rid yourself of all Apple hardware and software, you quit using its services, and you delete your iCloud account, you have zero affiliation with Apple. As far as it knows, you no longer exist. This is undoubtably a tedious, time-consuming, and expensive thing to do — but you can entirely opt out of Apple’s ecosystem. I know many people who have.

It is hard to see how Apple’s greater emphasis on privacy enables it to have more control over the internet in the long run. You would have to be a deeply cynical person who believes Apple would oppose a strict national privacy law — something Cook has repeatedly called for — because it creates a market for Apple’s more privacy-friendly products, and you would have to ignore the overwhelming majority of people who demand greater privacy online for that to be true. Of course Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, would rather you buy your technology products from Apple, but this company policy is not mere veneer. It is a longstanding commitment — though it is imperfect and has its limits — as is the company’s stance towards an open internet.1

But an open internet does not mean one in which all advertising is individually targeted using data farmed through independent apps and websites that serve as proxies for the surveillance practices of Facebook and Google. In the history of advertising, the privacy-hostile premise that these companies are selling is fairly recent. Shooting for pinpoint relevancy is a waste of time and privacy when relevant enough ads can be targeted to someone browsing a list of coffee cake recipes, an article about wedding locations, or a local news story. Mediocre ad targeting was good enough to buy an entire Batmobile.

Forget the apparent “war” between Cook and Zuckerberg personally, or even between the companies they chair. Both Apple and Facebook believe that many users, when presented with the option of whether to allow third parties to track their activity, will say no. But the new thing is not the tracking, it is the request for explicit permission — and Facebook appears to think that it will struggle to convince people it should be allowed to strip-mine their behaviour. We ought to be asking whether this was ever ethical. It seems most people would disagree.

Ads can keep funding the internet; Apple is not eradicating advertising from its platform. It is only requiring that users give consent to how much they would like to be surveilled. It speaks volumes about Facebook that it believes those are necessarily the same thing.


  1. A non-exhaustive list of privacy commitments: device encryption; masking Bluetooth and MAC addresses; Safari’s tracking prevention mechanisms, including ITP and share button tracking; local categorization of images in Photos; privacy labels in the App Store; non-specific location data in apps; and background location notifications. Many of these features are not recent. For example, since the mid-2000s, Safari defaulted to allowing only first-party cookies and cookies from websites you visited. ↩︎