Why Facebook and Apple are fighting over your privacy

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Facebook and Apple’s fight over your data is heating up. Apple’s tracking-optional mobile operating system update is coming to iPhones this spring, and the new privacy-preserving features will give users the ability to opt out of being followed around the internet via trackers in their apps. Facebook — which makes the vast majority of its money from data collected through those trackers — really doesn’t like Apple’s new features. Now Facebook is considering suing Apple, and Apple is digging in its heels.

Late January saw the latest exchange of words between the two companies in a standoff that’s been going on for months. On January 27, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a quarterly earnings call that “we increasingly see Apple as one of our biggest competitors,” accusing Apple of using its “dominant platform position” to push its own apps while interfering with Facebook’s. Zuck added that Apple may frame this as a privacy service to its customers, but it’s really only in Apple’s own best anti-competitive interests. The following morning, the Information reported that Facebook was preparing an antitrust suit against Apple over its App Store rules (which, if filed, will join several others).

Apple is not backing down. The day after Facebook’s earnings call, CEO Tim Cook spoke at the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference. In his keynote address, Cook never mentioned Facebook by name, but the target of his pointed remarks about data and advertising was obvious.

“Technology does not need vast troves of personal data, stitched together across dozens of websites and apps, in order to succeed,” Cook said. “Advertising existed and thrived for decades without it. And we’re here today because the path of least resistance is rarely the path of wisdom. If a business is built on misleading users, on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, then it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform.”

The reform Cook is talking about would look like a mobile operating system that prevents companies from accumulating said vast troves of personal data, and Apple’s latest efforts bring its own mobile operating system, iOS, pretty close to that ideal. The iPhone maker has incorporated several privacy protections into its products and services over the years. In iOS 14, apps will have to tell users what information they collect and get their permission to do it. Some of these features are already live, including the so-called privacy nutrition labels, which are supposed to tell users if their data is being collected, how, and why (though, as the Washington Post points out, the labels appear to be operating on the honor system).

A potentially bigger deal, for users and developers alike, is the upcoming App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature, which will require apps to get users’ permission to track them across other apps and websites. If users say no — and it’s likely that most of them will, given that people generally don’t like being tracked — companies that use targeted advertising will lose a major source of data, and, therefore, revenue. So Apple’s move could significantly harm the very mobile app ecosystem its iPhone helped to create.

Facebook, a company that has not historically been a major proponent of user privacy, is one of the biggest data collectors of all. Its trackers are buried in tons of mobile apps and on websites, and Facebook uses the data they collect for ads on its platforms and its Audience Network mobile app ad service. So you can imagine that the social media giant/data vacuum was somewhat alarmed to find out that potentially millions of iPhones would soon have a way to cut off some of those data streams. Facebook certainly isn’t the only company to balk at Apple’s new rules, but it is one of the biggest.

It has responded by framing Apple’s move as an attack on the small businesses that use Facebook ads to target potential customers. In a PR campaign last December, Facebook said that non-personalized ads would generate 60 percent fewer sales than personalized ones — while these businesses were struggling to stay afloat during a pandemic, no less. Apple shrugged and continued with its ATT rollout plans. On February 1, Facebook announced that Apple’s required tracking permission prompt would be accompanied by one from Facebook that “will provide more information” about how and why Facebook uses targeted ads. It will point out that the money those ads take in helps to keep apps free and gives the businesses that use them a better return on their investment than non-targeted ads do (according to Facebook, which might be a little biased).

Facebook and Apple are two of the biggest companies in the world, with very different points of view about user privacy. Apple has made user privacy part of its business strategy, even engaging in public spats with the Department of Justice to protect it. That’s because it deals in products and services — not data — and positions itself as the more private and secure alternative to Google, which very much does deal in data. Facebook was also built on user data, so its fights with the Department of Justice have been over user privacy violations.

But as Facebook (and several other companies) have pointed out, Apple has an incredible amount of control over every aspect of its devices. Apple mobile devices are only manufactured by Apple and can only use Apple’s operating system. Apple hardware must also use apps obtained through Apple’s App Store, and those apps have to meet Apple’s requirements, use Apple’s in-app features, pay Apple’s commissions, and compete against Apple’s own apps, which sometimes look a whole lot like their own. So Apple can make privacy part of its selling point for its customers, and it can also mandate it from any apps that want access to iPhone users. Even when those apps are made by companies as big and powerful as Facebook.

As for what all of this means to you, the user? Other than having some more privacy options when Apple’s update finally arrives this spring, probably not much for the time being. The ads won’t go away; they just won’t have as much access to your data to target them. Facebook has already said it will comply with Apple’s ATT requirements, so it won’t be pulling its apps from the App Store over this, nor will Apple be kicking them out.

This is good for both companies because Apple’s users want Facebook’s apps (Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp) on their iPhones, and Facebook wants their apps in front of as many people as possible. They may be feuding publicly — as they’ve done for years — but their mutually beneficial relationship is still very much intact.

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