Apple’s spat with Facebook heats up with iOS privacy changes

26 Apr 2021

Image: © Denys Prykhodov/Stock.adobe.com

Privacy updates to Apple’s operating system are about to come into effect but Facebook and others are still putting up a fight.

Long-awaited privacy updates to iOS are expected today (26 April) and look set to heat up tensions between Apple and Facebook once again.

At its core, the feature change will allow users to prevent apps from collecting their data. This has opened a rift between Apple and other services, namely Facebook, that rely on collecting user data to power effective advertising.

The new iOS 14.5 that arrives this week turns off what’s called IDFA, or identifier for advertisers, by default. IDFA is used by developers as a means to monitor how ads are performing and to target ads at users.

Ultimately the move will curtail how Facebook monitors users on its apps and how they interact with other services, and in turn stymie the way that advertisers can track users and see what they are interested in.

By keeping IDFA switched off by default, apps will be required to ask users explicitly to turn it on and to allow for data collection. Facebook will introduce a prompt to ask users if they accept, but surveys suggest that most users will pick no.

The Apple update removes some of the unwitting consent to data collection in some apps where users are unaware that data is being collected by default.

The new feature, dubbed App Tracking Transparency, has been in the works for some time and was originally slated to be rolled out in the last iOS update but was delayed.

Its arrival marks a significant challenge for Facebook and its business model – it generated $84bn in revenue from advertising last year.

Privacy vs competition

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Of all the tech giants, Apple has been able to take a firmer stand on privacy as its business is mostly driven by sales of devices and services. It does not rely on data in the same way that Facebook does.

That divergence in economics has put Apple and Facebook on a collision course.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg took aim at Apple in January, claiming the company’s changes on IDFA were driven by competition rather than concern for privacy.

“Apple may say they’re doing this to help people, but the moves clearly track with their competitive interests,” the Facebook boss said on an earnings call.

Facebook also claimed that prompts to enable ad tracking will harm small businesses and took out full-page newspaper ads to slam the changes.

It has been the most vocal company in its criticism of Apple but it’s not alone. Today a group of German tech and media companies, including Axel Springer, filed an antitrust complaint against Apple, claiming that the privacy changes will unduly harm their advertising businesses.

Regulators have taken notice of the spat. In February, EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager said that while the issue is one of privacy, there could be competition law violations if Apple creates an environment where some apps are treated differently to others or if Apple’s own apps end up being favoured.

Separately, Apple announced today that it is investing $1bn in a new campus in North Carolina for 3,000 employees along with an $80bn commitment to invest in other parts of the US. Apple chief executive Tim Cook said the investments will reach “communities across all 50 states”.

Jonathan Keane is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Dublin

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