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Apple vs Facebook – the fight for user privacy

The battle for control over user data finds industry giants brawling once again

Facebook isn’t happy with Apple – and it’s not being subtle about it. In fact, Facebook isn’t being subtle to the tune of taking out full-page newspaper adverts regarding its unhappiness, writing blog posts about its displeasure, and having CEO Mark Zuckerberg slam Apple during Facebook’s most recent earnings call. There are even threats of a lawsuit – but why? It all comes down to privacy – and how everything shakes out will have big ramifications for your own personal user data well into the future.

The gripe stems from a promise Apple made at its developer conference last summer. In short, it would introduce and mandate app tracking transparency. This would require every app to secure someone’s permission before it was allowed to track their data across apps and websites owned by other companies. Within the Settings app, people would be able to check which apps have requested such permissions, and make changes as they see fit. This would make tracking “transparent and under your control.”

This was all supposed to happen with the release of iOS 14, but Apple delayed the feature’s rollout, to give companies more time to prepare. It’s now imminent, arriving as part of iOS 14.5, hence Facebook’s urgency to lob a spanner into the works and hope Apple will think different.

Facebook’s argument is a curious one though. It seeks to frame Apple as having an unfair advantage through forcing third-party apps to gain user consent for tracking, when that won’t apply to Apple’s own apps. However, Facebook omits the fairly important point that Apple products don’t use this kind of tracking in the first place.

Zuckerberg also reportedly said of Apple: “They say they are doing this to help people, but the moves clearly track their competitive interests.” This doesn’t help Facebook as much as he thinks it does, because both statements are true. Apple is doing this to help people, and it does track with the company’s competitive interests. It just so happens those interests are markedly different from Facebook’s.

All this is starkly outlined in an Apple white paper (PDF) that tells the story of a dad and his daughter on a nice day out. Beneath the fun bits – time at the park; playing a game on a phone; taking a selfie; buying ice cream – there is a parallel dystopian tale being told about data being recorded and sold to third parties eager to send precise, targeted advertising the family’s way. Facebook succeeds when few protections are in place, cementing its dominance of online activity. It can then better leverage people’s dependence on the reach of its social network, and the reliance businesses have of successfully advertising to users through Facebook advertising. Apple, by contrast, has defined privacy as a differentiator and key interest, wanting to at the very least provide individuals with the means to understand how and why they are being tracked – and to do something about it.

Ultimately, this all comes down to mindsets. Do you, as an individual, prefer to be aware of when your personal data – location; purchases; interests – about you is being collected and shared, and be able to opt in or opt out? If so, you should be Team Apple in this fight.

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