Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Lawmakers Question Apple’s Changes to Location Tracking in iOS 13 on Anticompetitive Grounds

Reed Albergotti, Washington Post:

Historically, app makers could ask users for permission to track their location even when they’re not using the app. That was helpful for services that tracked where a user parked their car or where they may have lost a device paired to the phone. But in the new update, app makers can no longer ask for that functionality when an app is first set up — a potentially devastating blow to competitors such as Tile, maker of Bluetooth trackers that help people find lost items.

By contrast, Apple tracks iPhone users’ location at all time — and users can’t opt out unless they go deep into Apple’s labyrinthine menu of settings.

It isn’t exactly true that iPhone users’ locations are always being tracked by the system. Users are asked when setting up their iOS device whether they would like to enable location-based services; they are not automatically opted in. But once a user sets their device up, it’s unlikely they’ll change that setting. There is huge power in being the default, particularly when that’s the default across the entire system for any and all of Apple’s own services that require location access.

There is a fair argument about how this makes sense. Buyers, presumably, have an implied trust in the first-party device manufacturer that cannot be extended to third-party developers. Apple’s track record on privacy is generally good; it would be falsely equivalent to compare their requirement of system-forced permission requests with companies like Facebook and Google that inhale user data and spit out creepy advertisements.

“I’m increasingly concerned about the use of privacy as a shield for anti-competitive conduct,” said Rep. David N. Cicilline (R.I.), who serves as chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. “There is a growing risk that without a strong privacy law in the United States, platforms will exploit their role as de facto private regulators by placing a thumb on the scale in their own favor.”

Cicilline is correct: the duty of regulating this stuff should not be passed off to companies motivated less by ethical concerns than revenue.