Apple’s Slightly Uncomfortable Power of Good

Kevin Roose, New York Times:

It’s bizarre and somewhat troubling that Apple could unilaterally punish a competitor for its privacy sins. (Imagine if McDonald’s could shut down Burger King franchises for health code violations, with little explanation and no recourse for appeal.) But it’s hard to argue with Apple’s decision here. It made rules governing what developers for Apple products were allowed to do, Facebook broke them, and it’s now paying a price.

Apple’s defense of user privacy, while certainly self-interested, is a boon to its users and a lever for change within the tech industry. And if Mr. Cook wants to take a strong stand against app developers that routinely violate users’ trust, he could start with the biggest privacy violator of all. Facebook won’t change on its own, but a chastening from Apple might be what the company needs to get its act together.

Casey Newton:

Facebook is an enlightened dictatorship, but so is Apple. Tim Cook and his lieutenants dictate the terms of an enormous economy, and can change that economy on a whim. Today Apple may have acted out of consistency with its privacy principles, to the benefit of some consumers. (And to the detriment of anyone who was counting on that $20 gift card!) But as Apple faces more pressure to serve as, as Roose put it, de facto privacy regulator, we may find ourselves uncomfortable with its monopolistic power.

I’ve been following along with Kashmir Hill’s experiment to try to rid herself of her dependence on the big five tech companies. She hasn’t published her experience with dropping Apple yet, but a pattern emerged in her reports on tying to stop using Amazon, Google, and — to a lesser extent — Microsoft: all of these companies are tightly integrated into the tech ecosystem at large, so it’s almost impossible to be independent of them. Take Amazon, for instance. Hill found that removing its store from her life was difficult, but getting rid of Amazon Web Services was practically impossible because it’s the infrastructure for lots of other tech companies.

Apple, by comparison, seems like it would be much easier to remove from your life because the company provides virtually no business-to-business services; there is no “Apple Web Services” product. Apple has much less power, in that regard.

However, running the App Store is an enormously powerful position to be in. It is probably their closest equivalent to providing a product or service upon which other companies are dependent. You could use Facebook or Pinterest or Twitter in Safari, but their apps are much better. The “sweet solution” explained at WWDC 2007 was anything but.

What Apple did in this circumstance was extraordinary — motivated by Facebook’s utter disregard for its platform rules and using that for its callous treatment of the privacy of its users and, in particular, minors. What Facebook does should not have been possible in an adequate legal privacy framework. But, in the absence of regulators that do their jobs, I think Apple made the right call here. They aren’t a bully without a conscience; they have platform rules that must be followed, and they anything but contempt for user privacy.1 They got this right, but regulators should step up with legislation to protect personal information.

I get where Newton and Roose are coming from when they describe Apple’s power in this situation. It’s a bit alarming that Apple has this kind of control over Facebook. Scarier, to me, is that only Apple has the moral compass and the power to exercise this kind of control over Facebook.

  1. The FaceTime bug that lit up the web earlier this week was a bug. It was a bad, terrible, awful, intrusive bug, but a bug — not a business model. ↥︎