The Battle Over Our Data
This post was originally made on 5/12/21
Welcome to The Bloch,
So much has happened since my last letter, it was hard to know what to talk about. To name a few: we’ve seen Tom Brady with laser eyes, Elon Musk hosted the Mother’s Day SNL, ETH topped $3,000, and then very quickly continued past $4,000, and we’ve seen escalated tensions in Jerusalem and Gaza. The Lakers are struggling with injuries and the NBA playoffs are still shaping up to be epic.
But today I want to focus on two of the tech giants and their ongoing war over our data. I’m talking about Apple and Facebook. If you haven’t been following this story, here’s a quick rundown. Apple is currently the biggest company in the world by market capitalization. Apple’s market cap (which is the stock share price multiplied by the number of shares outstanding) is currently $2.1 trillion dollars. In January of this year, there were 1.65 billion actively used Apple devices in the world, a number that continues to grow rapidly. Facebook, on the other side of the ring, weighs in at a market cap of $868 billion, currently the 6th largest company in the world by market cap. As of its most recent earnings report, there are 1.88 billion daily active users on Facebook, and 2.85 billion users active every month. So if we assume a lot of overlap, we’re talking somewhere around 10–20% of the world using both an Apple device and a Facebook product every day. Easily a billion people. So whether or not you care what they are fighting about, if you’re reading this, it affects you.
They have been publicly fighting over Apple’s iOS 14.5 update, which introduces an App Tracking Transparency Feature, that Facebook and other digital advertisers really don’t like. A study from an analytics firm owned by Verizon suggests that only 4% of iPhone users in the U.S. are allowing tracking after the update. This feature is not a new concept by the way. Apple would have you believe that it is fighting for you and your privacy in its products, and this feature is certainly a step in the right direction. But I’ll have us remember when Steve Jobs was speaking about privacy at the end of the D8 conference back in 2010 over a year before he died. When they brought up the topic of privacy, they even said “Sorry Mark” to Mark Zuckerberg who was sitting off-camera nearby.
Steve Jobs said: “We take privacy very seriously. For example, we worry a lot about location in phones. We worry that … something terrible is going to happen because of our phones. And so as an example, before any app can get location data, we don’t make it a rule that they have to put up a panel and ask because they might not follow that rule. They call our location services and we put up the panel, saying “this app wants to use your location data, is that okay with you.” Every time they want to use it. And we do a lot of things like that to ensure that people understand what these apps are doing. That’s why we have the curated app store. We have rejected a lot of apps that want to take a lot of your personal data and suck it up into the cloud.
Then Walt Mossberg presses him and says “but won’t apple move more into the cloud and doesn’t that mean that inevitably…” and Steve Jobs cuts him off and says, “No! Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain English, and repeatedly… let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data.”
The irony here is double for Apple. This nod to Steve Jobs’ definition of privacy and extending it to the data advertisers are collecting now, 11 years after this interview, feels more like a calculated business move than one that is truly about our right to privacy. I mean, now that Amazon, Google, and Facebook, are the 4th, 5th, and 6th biggest companies on Earth, it seems a little late to make this update to the rules, which seems to basically do precisely what Steve Jobs was talking about way back then.
The second irony is that 10 years prior to this interview, Apple basically pioneered the “Click here to say you read this 50-page contract in 2 seconds” with the frequent iTunes updates back in the early 2000s. South Park did an episode called “HumancentiPad” back in 2011 with some social commentary on this that is still very much relevant today. Maybe one of my lawyer friends can explain to me how a company can rely on a contract when that same company has the data to prove that the person who accepted the agreement did not actually spend the time humanly required to read it. This write-up I found on End User License Agreements doesn’t quite do it for me.
And then there’s Facebook. They would have us believe that they are fighting back against Apple to protect small businesses. But just last week Signal, a private encrypted messaging app, “Tried to run the most honest ad campaign ever” and got themselves in trouble with Facebook. Signal ran a series of Instagram ads targeting Facebook users and showed them how detailed some of the data Facebook collects on them is. Ironically, Signal used Facebook’s own tools to do the targeting, but Facebook booted Signal off their ad platform anyway. Facebook denies this and says it was a Signal PR stunt, and that they never tried to run the ads. Signal claims Facebook is a big bad bully. Signal tweeted:
So it seems Facebook wants to stand up for small businesses unless those small businesses are trying to convince people to leave Facebook Messenger.
Needless to say, I don’t buy Facebook’s Speaking Up For Small Businesses campaign which paints Apple as a big bad bully to small businesses. But I also don’t buy Apple’s “we are the protectors of your privacy” narrative either. It seems to me that they really just don’t like how powerful these big data collectors have become. If they were truly committed to privacy, why wasn’t this update part of the release of iOS 5 or iOS 6 back in 2011–2012? Or the 7 major iOS releases since? Don’t get me wrong, I use Facebook and Instagram, I love Apple products, and I have many friends from my time working there. I appreciate the work Apple has started doing on privacy over the last few years, and as an individual iPhone and Facebook user, I’m in favor of this iOS update. But, I also don’t believe everything I read.
So if you’re getting this tracking notification message on your iPhone, now you know why. Allow for more targeted ads, ask the app not to track to protect your privacy. The choice is yours.
Until next time.