Apple and Facebook at odds over privacy move that will hit online ads

Tim Cook lambasts firms ‘built on misleading users, data exploitation, on choices that are not choices at all’

Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, has launched his strongest attack on Facebook yet, as the two companies face off over Apple’s plans for new privacy features that would severely limit online advertising.

Speaking to the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference on “Data Privacy Day”, Cook defended Apple’s decision to introduce the features, called App Tracking Transparency (ATT).

That setting, coming to iPhones in “early spring”, will for the first time require apps to ask for users’ permission in order to track them around the web.

Apple’s ATT plans have brought stark criticism from Facebook, which claimed late last year that it would kill small businesses by preventing them from advertising to would-be customers.

Facebook’s head of ads, Dan Levy, said Apple was pushing for “anti-personalised advertising, and we think is trying to take the world back 10 or 20 years”.

Cook hit back on Thursday, defending ATT and attacking Facebook – without naming the company directly – as an irresponsible actor. He said the company expected many users to block tracking entirely.

“Some may well think that sharing this degree of information is worth it for more targeted ads,” he said. “Many others, I suspect, will not, just as most appreciated it when we built a similar functionality into Safari limiting web trackers several years ago.

“If a business is built on misleading users, on data exploitation, on choices that are not choices at all, then it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform. Too many are still asking the question ‘how much can we get away with?’, when they need to be asking ‘what are the consequences?’.

“What are the consequences of prioritising conspiracy theories and violent incitement simply because of their high rates of engagement? What are the consequences of not just tolerating but rewarding content that undermines public trust in lifesaving vaccinations? What are the consequences of seeing thousands of users join extremist groups, and then perpetuating an algorithm that recommends even more?”

While Facebook has not responded to Cook’s comments publicly, the social network is reportedly preparing its own offensive. According to the Information, a tech news site, Facebook is planning to launch an antitrust lawsuit against Apple, arguing that the company is breaking US law by requiring independent developers to follow rules that Apple does not itself have to abide by.

As well as ATT, Facebook is likely to target a number of other features of iOS that it says are applied unfairly. A new set of “privacy nutrition labels”, for instance, require Facebook to list the hundreds of types of data it collects about users on the App Store, while Apple services such as iMessage, which cannot be deleted and are thus not on the store, do not display that information in the same way.

Facebook has also complained about Apple’s payment rules barring it from supporting companies that want to sell services such as online yoga classes, and Apple preventing the social network from launching a gaming app containing social games, even as Apple charges £5 a month for its own Apple Arcade.

On Facebook’s earnings call on Wednesday, the chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said Apple was focused on “on gaining share in apps and services against us and other developers. So Apple has every incentive to use their dominant platform position to interfere with how our apps and other apps work, which they regularly do to preference their own.”


Alex Hern Technology editor

The GuardianTramp

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