Apple moving forward with plan to limit “creepy” user tracking

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Enlarge / A man glowers at an iPhone, just as ad firms are worried iOS users will when they discover how they are being tracked and that they can opt out of it.

Apple’s plan to add a new privacy feature to iOS to limit “invasive, even creepy” tracking by third-party firms is nothing but an abuse of market power to stifle competition, Facebook—a third-party tracking firm extraordinaire—claims.

Apple in June announced that iOS 14 would make a change requiring app developers to notify users if their app collects a unique device code, known as an IDFA (ID for Advertisers), and require that collection to be an opt-in setting. After pushback from Facebook and other firms, however, Apple delayed implementation of the new policy and launched iOS 14 in September without enabling it. The company said instead the feature would be added “early next year” to give developers more time to update their apps accordingly.

Apple stands behind its plan to implement the new app tracking transparency (ATT) feature next year and plans to move forward with it, Jane Horvath, senior director of global privacy at Apple, said in a letter to eight civil, human, and digital rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“Tracking can be invasive, even creepy, and more often than not it takes place without meaningful user awareness or consent,” Horvath wrote. “What some companies call ‘personalized experiences’ are often veiled attempts to gather as much data as possible about individuals, build extensive profiles on them, and then monetize those profiles.”

“We are not against advertising,” Horvath added. “We simply think tracking should be transparent and under user control, which will engender user trust that will benefit all.” She specifically called out Facebook in the letter, adding:

Facebook executives have made clear their intent is to collect as much data as possible across both first- and third-party products to develop and monetize detailed profiles of their users, and this disregard for user privacy continues to expand to include more of their products … We see the update to iOS 14 which implements the ATT feature as a natural evolution, providing the same explicit, privacy-forward choices to our users regarding tracking by their apps as we do to other key features of the device.

Facebook, fired up

Facebook, perhaps predictably, did not care for Apple’s characterization of its business model. Instead, the social media behemoth swung for Apple’s current sore spot: antitrust enforcement.

“The truth is, Apple has expanded its business into advertising and through its upcoming iOS 14 changes is trying to move the free Internet into paid apps and services where they profit,” a representative for Facebook said, adding:

As a result, they are using their dominant market position to self-preference their own data collection while making it nearly impossible for their competitors to use the same data. They claim it’s about privacy, but it’s about profit. … We are not fooled. This is all part of a transformation of Apple’s business away from innovative hardware products to data-driven software and media.

Facebook clearly has a vested interest in being able to track iOS users in a very granular and thorough way, and the company does indeed stand to lose its position if individuals become able to opt out. That said, Facebook is far from the only entity to allege that Apple is unfairly abusing its power to push out third-party firms.

A group of publishers, advertising groups, and social media platforms filed an antitrust complaint in France against Apple late in October, arguing that Apple was using the language of consumer protection to cloak a deliberate attempt to stifle competition. “While privacy matters and needs to be protected, privacy rhetoric cannot be used as a fig leaf to justify anti-competitive practices that will destroy the mobile ad ecosystem while benefiting Apple,” a lawyer representing the coalition said at the time.

That claim follows a whole suite of different antitrust complaints that have been levied against Apple around the world. The European Commission opened a probe into Apple Pay this summer following a complaint from Spotify. Messaging app Telegram likewise filed a complaint about the App Store shortly after the EU confirmed its investigation was underway.

Here in the US, Apple is embroiled in a high-drama legal fight with Epic Games, which alleged in an August antitrust lawsuit that Apple is “the behemoth seeking to control markets, block competition, and stifle innovation.” Epic in September became one of the founding members of a new trade group, the “Coalition for App Fairness,” which seeks to force Apple to change its “exploitative” app store practices.

A congressional investigation that concluded in October agreed with the complaints, finding that Apple ties its in-app payments system and its app store together in an anticompetitive way and that the company also unfairly used its control over APIs, search rankings, and default apps to hurt third-party competitors. The Department of Justice reportedly has an antitrust probe into Apple currently in progress.

Earlier this week, Apple seemed to try to appease regulators by halving the cut it takes of small developers’ sales, from 30 percent to 15 percent. That cut, however, only affects developers that generate less than $1 million per year across all their iOS apps—and it’s an opt-in program to which developers must apply and be accepted.



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