Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Facebook’s Attempt to Vilify Apple

Kurt Wagner and Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Facebook Inc. lashed out at Apple Inc. in a series of full-page newspaper ads, claiming the iPhone maker’s coming mobile software changes around data gathering and targeted advertising are bad for small businesses.

The ads, which ran Wednesday in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, carried the headline “We’re standing up to Apple for small businesses everywhere.” They home in on upcoming changes to Apple’s iOS 14 operating system that will curb the ability of companies like Facebook to gather data about users and ply them with targeted advertising.

Alex Hern, the Guardian:

The point of contention is a feature coming to iPhones in the new year that will require developers to ask for permission before they can track what users do across apps. Apple says the feature, which was originally slated for launch in October before being delayed in order to allow advertisers time to cope, is necessary to protect user privacy; it comes alongside a number of similar changes in new versions of iOS, such as a requirement that app developers provide a “nutritional label” for their software to explain what they do with user data.

Facebook objects – but seems keen to stress it is not doing so because it is defending its bottom line. According to its pitch, the real victims are “your neighbourhood coffee brewery, your friend who owns their own retail business, your cousin who started an event planning service and the game developers who build the apps you use for free”.

Dan Levy — but not that Dan Levy — of Facebook:

This affects not just app developers, but also small businesses that rely on personalized ads to grow. Here’s why. Small businesses have small budgets. For these small budgets to work, they have to be targeted at the customers that matter to small businesses. It doesn’t do a local wedding planner any good to reach people who aren’t planning a wedding. Likewise, it doesn’t do a small ecommerce outfit selling customized dog leashes any good to reach cat owners. Put simply, by dramatically limiting the effectiveness of personalized advertising, Apple’s policy will make it much harder for small businesses to reach their target audience, which will limit their growth and their ability to compete with big companies.

Levy deftly conflates “advertising” and “personalized advertising”, as if there are no ways to target people planning a wedding without surveilling their web browsing behaviour. Facebook’s campaign casually ignores decades of advertising targeted based on the current webpage or video instead of who those people are because it would impact Facebook’s primary business. Most people who are reading an article about great wedding venues are probably planning a wedding, but you don’t need quite as much of the ad tech stack to make that work.

The way to describe this feature coming to iOS devices next year is that all apps that wish to track users must ask permission. But Reed Albergotti of the Washington Post filed a credulous report:

Facebook took aim at Apple on Wednesday, criticizing the iPhone maker’s new policies limiting personalized ads on Apple products.

Facebook said changes Apple has made to how easily advertisers can track iPhone users will disproportionately harm small businesses that rely on personalized advertisements to reach customers and find new ones. Facebook said its internal research has found that small businesses earned 60 percent less in sales when they were not able to use the kind of targeted advertising that Apple aims to limit.

Dan Levy, Facebook’s vice president for ads and business products, blasted Apple, questioning the company’s motives for a move he said benefits Apple’s bottom line. “We believe Apple is behaving anti-competitively by using their control of the App Store to benefit their bottom line at the expense of app developers and small businesses,” he said during a call Wednesday. Facebook launched a new website and took out full-page ads in newspapers to try to drum up support.

At best, Albergotti’s report treats everything about this issue as an open debate where both parties’ claims are equally accurate. While I understand the inclination to avoid taking sides, it is possible to check their claims against the available evidence. I have quoted above the first three paragraphs of the story, only after which there is a comment from Apple clarifying that, no, this new policy does not inherently limit tracking or advertising:

“We believe that this is a simple matter of standing up for our users,” said Apple spokesman Fred Sainz in a statement. He said the new changes in iOS 14 don’t actually prohibit Facebook from continuing to offer the same tracking. Rather, “It simply requires they give users a choice,” he said. Apple has denied that it is making the changes for business reasons. Instead, Apple says, the changes, which require customers to specifically opt into personalized ad tracking, are meant to enhance its customers’ privacy, which the company has called a fundamental human right.

It would be more honest for Albergotti to describe this change for what it is: instead of requiring users to opt out of targeting later, it now requires users give explicit consent for each app to track them using the system identifier. There are parts of this that may be worth treating as an open discussion — the trade-offs for small businesses described by Facebook may be real to some extent, and this change may improve user privacy as Apple claims — but the mechanism itself is not a debate. These new policies are not, as Facebook and Albergotti say, explicitly about “limiting personalized ads”, only requiring that users meaningfully consent to them instead of burying that affirmation in a lengthy privacy policy.