Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Tim Cook’s Time Magazine Editorial on Privacy

Tim Cook in Time:

Meaningful, comprehensive federal privacy legislation should not only aim to put consumers in control of their data, it should also shine a light on actors trafficking in your data behind the scenes. Some state laws are looking to accomplish just that, but right now there is no federal standard protecting Americans from these practices. That’s why we believe the Federal Trade Commission should establish a data-broker clearinghouse, requiring all data brokers to register, enabling consumers to track the transactions that have bundled and sold their data from place to place, and giving users the power to delete their data on demand, freely, easily and online, once and for all.

Setting aside the actual point of this essay — which, by the way, is an excellent summary of why privacy legislation for user data is sorely needed — something that’s kind of interesting is how it reads in a very Tim Cook kind of way. Much as Steve Jobs had a unique voice in both his speaking and writing, so, too, does Cook. It doesn’t feel like it’s an essay produced by some copywriter to which Cook’s name is later affixed; it’s clear to me that this is something that truly matters to him, and which he probably wrote himself.

Nilay Patel linked to the essay on Twitter and attached a screenshot of the top apps in the App Store, clarifying in a reply:

The iPhone’s value is built on these services. Pushing for a law is great, but it is telling that they won’t use their own platform dominance to forbid these practices.

“These services” refers to apps like Gmail and Instagram, both of which are run by companies that show virtually no respect for users’ privacy. This seems to come up frequently in conversations about Apple, and it’s something lots of people mention, so I don’t mean to single out Patel here. But I think it’s a horribly lazy take.

Can you imagine the scale of the shit fit that would be thrown if Apple completely prohibited apps from Google and Facebook in the App Store? Not just from users, either: tech publications, mainstream newspapers, and regulators would be apoplectic, given the obvious antitrust questions that would likely be provoked by this kind of power move.

For what it’s worth, Apple has strict guidelines on the collection and use of users’ data. These rules require that developers collect opt-in permission, prohibit apps from requiring personal data unless it’s necessary for the app’s core functionality, and encourage minimization of data collection overall. That’s not to say the company is perfect. For example, you cannot post photos to an Instagram story if you’ve denied microphone access to Instagram, despite Apple’s developer guidelines using basically this scenario as a prohibited example. I wish Apple were stricter in enforcing the rules they already have, but their reluctance to create a PR and antitrust catastrophe is understandable.

In general, however, enforcement of online privacy should not be Apple’s job. Cook is right in stating that this should be dealt with in policy, not on individual companies’ terms. Frankly, Apple’s ability to use privacy as a differentiating characteristic is embarrassing for the tech industry and its regulators. Users should not have to be wary of compromising their privacy or worried that they will lose control over their personal details every time they use a tech product, an app, or a website.