Apple and Facebook are fighting again, and how you feel about it says something about who you trust to represent your interests in the strange tech landscape of 2020.
Start with a rather academic question that may make your eyes glaze over in spite of yourself: When does pro-privacy regulation overstep its bounds to become anticompetitive? It’s a question I found myself asking last year, when Apple canceled Facebook’s enterprise certificate temporarily following revelations that the company had been using those certificates to conduct market research. And it’s a question I’m thinking about today, as Apple intervenes to unilaterally reshape a market — in ways that once again put Facebook on the defensive.
The issue at stake is a technical one, but it’s worth learning a little bit about — if only for the fact that, assuming you use an iPhone, it’s going to result in a lot of pop-ups on your phone once you upgrade your device in a month or so. The advertising industry assigns a unique code to each device called an Identification for Advertisers, or IDFA. Knowing your IDFA can help advertisers tell whether their ads are effective, particularly when they’ve shown you the same ad in multiple places. Facebook uses the IDFA as part of Audience Network, its ad network for developers.
Starting with iOS 14, which will ship this fall, Apple will begin requiring that developers show you a warning that they are collecting your IDFA, and you’ll have to opt in to sharing it. Some large percentage of users can be expected to say “no thanks.”
On Wednesday, Facebook said it would stop collecting IDFA altogether. Here’s Kurt Wagner at Bloomberg:
Facebook on Wednesday said it won’t collect IDFA through its own apps on iOS 14 devices, a decision that will “severely impact” Audience Network. Thousands of developers use the Facebook platform to fill the ad inventory within their mobile apps, and without IDFA information to help target those marketing messages, Audience Network revenue could drop as much as 50%, the company said. Facebook is considering eliminating the service altogether for iOS 14 users.
“This is not a change we want to make, but unfortunately Apple’s updates to iOS 14 have forced this decision,” Facebook wrote in a blog post. “We know this may severely impact publishers’ ability to monetize through Audience Network on iOS 14, and, despite our best efforts, may render Audience Network so ineffective on iOS 14 that it may not make sense to offer it on iOS 14 in the future.”
Facebook’s own ad business will be mostly fine, since your profile and activity on its apps contain data way more useful than a simple device ID. But the company says that a lot of its advertising clients will suffer.
A common reaction to all this on Twitter today was: boo-hoo. “Aww, poor baby, Facebook,” says my pal Joanna Stern, in a representative tweet. “Now it has to ask permission to track everything you do on your phone.” Said the pseudonymous Internet of Shit: “I like how Facebook is spinning this as a bad thing.”
To be clear, Apple’s move here legitimately promotes privacy, if only at the margins. And it does so in the same way that Facebook often congratulates itself for doing: by putting the user in control. My friend Walt Mossberg picked up on this point: “In the forthcoming version of iOS, Apple is simply switching from an obscure opt-out system for apps that want to track users across the web to an explicit opt-in system,” he wrote. “At last! In my view, we should have a law requiring explicit opt-ins for the collection of personal data.”
But do you feel at all differently knowing that Apple targets its own advertising at you using a wide variety of data it collects from your phone? Because it does! Here are Patience Haggin and Jeff Horwitz in the Wall Street Journal:
Apple isn’t a big player in online advertising, but it does have its own small business that personalizes ads shown in the App Store and on Apple News based on where users go and what users do in Apple’s apps. The company is applying separate rules for its own ad-personalization; to opt out, users must find an option in the iPhone’s settings.
Apple says it’s applying one standard everywhere. The IDFA restrictions apply only for developers who want to move data between companies; all developers can get access to the data generated from within their own apps. But this neatly sets aside the fact that Apple doesn’t have to move data between companies to run its ad business — because it owns the device, the operating system, the App Store, the data, and the advertising network.
OK, but who really suffers here? We know Facebook can take the hit, and surely the big game publishers will find other ways to advertise their games. But Recode reports that big publishers are considering abandoning iOS altogether because the value of advertising is expected to decline so much:
“It makes it much harder for us to monetize our Apple app users, who are an incredibly loyal readership. And quite frankly, it puts at risk our ability to provide an Apple app,” says Martin Clarke, publisher of DMG Media, which owns the UK’s Daily Mail and other publications; the company says its MailOnline iOS app attracts 1.2 million users per day. “There’s no point in providing an app for a platform that monetizes less well than other platforms.”
Such a steep decline has happened before. When Apple implemented similar anti-tracking features on its Safari web browser, the cost of reaching customers there declined by 60 percent, The Information reported last year. If you believe that free, ad-supported news is beneficial to a healthy democracy, it’s worth noting that all these pro-privacy changes come at a cost.
I’m not in love with ads, I swear. I pay extra each month to turn them off on YouTube, Hulu, and even The Verge. But it’s also true that ads subsidize a lot of important services. The less money you have, the more you rely on free services from companies like Facebook to live your daily life.
There should absolutely be hard limits on the kinds of data advertisers can collect, what they can do with it, and how they can store it. There should arguably be more limits on all of those things than there are today.
But just as I tense up when I see Apple dictating the revenue model of an email startup, or threatening to withhold bug fixes from WordPress blog owners if its parent company doesn’t implement in-app purchasing, I worry when I see the extent to which one business can change the terms of a whole economy. Particularly when no one affected has any meaningful way to appeal.
Few will cry any tears for Facebook over IFDA. I understand the impulse many have to view this particular dispute through the lens of the good team beating up the bad one. But the events of this summer have folks I know in Silicon Valley asking the same question over and over: who will Apple put the squeeze on next?
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
🔽 Trending down: Google employees knew the company’s location privacy settings were confusing and potentially misleading, according to newly unsealed documents from a consumer fraud lawsuit that the state of Arizona filed against the tech giant. The lawsuit came after the Associated Press published an article about how Google tracks users — even those that had turned tracking off. (Kate Cox / Ars Technica)
⭐ Two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin were killed Tuesday night. The violence may be tied to a Facebook event posted by a self-described militia, which referred to the event as a “call to arms.” Facebook has taken down the event, as well as the group’s Facebook Page. Here’s Russell Brandom at The Verge:
For three days, Kenosha has been racked with protests over the shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old father of six who was shot in the back by police. The protests have incurred significant property damage, destroying a local Department of Corrections facility on Monday night.
In a post Tuesday afternoon, the Kenosha Guard Facebook group encouraged an armed response to the ongoing unrest. “Any patriots willing to take up arms and defend our city tonight from the evil thugs?” the post reads. “No doubt they are currently planning on the next part of the city to burn tonight.”
At 11:45PM Tuesday night, two people were killed after a confrontation between protestors and men armed with long rifles, with a third sustaining injuries. Video of the shooting appears to show an armed militia member firing at protestors. The local sheriff’s office is still investigating the shooting, and the perpetrator has yet to be identified.
At least two separate Facebook users reported the Kenosha Guard account for inciting violence prior to the shooting. In each case, Facebook moderators examined the group and found that it didn’t violate the platform’s policies. The company took down the Kenosha Guard Facebook page after the shootings. (Russell Brandom / The Verge)
The young man charged with killing two protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin was identified on social media as Twitter and YouTube users attempted to reconstruct the shootings. Kyle Rittenhouse was identified as a “fugitive from justice” and will be charged with first-degree intentional homicide. (Adi Robertson / The Verge)
Twitter suspended a number of accounts for sharing a viral message claiming to be a Black Lives Matter protester who previously voted Democrat but is now switching to Republican. The message was first shared by a seemingly inauthentic account, then copied and pasted by others. (Marianna Spring / BBC)
The disinformation tactic used in the fake Black Lives Matter protestor campaign mirror Russia’s attempt to exacerbate racial divisions in the United States and suppress Black voter turnout in 2016. (Craig Timberg and Isaac Stanley-Becker / The Washington Post)
QAnon conspiracy theorists are targeting evangelicals on Facebook. Their message that Donald Trump is fighting a secret Satanic pedophile ring run by liberal elites mirrors the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s and 1990s. (Abby Ohlheiser / MIT Technology Review)
More than 2,400 police departments have signed contracts with Clearview AI, a controversial facial recognition firm. In a video interview with Jason Calacanis, the CEO of the company said “It’s an honor to be at the center of the debate now and talk about privacy.” An honor! (Elizabeth Lopatto / The Verge)
The UK government will likely pass restrictions on TikTok, but will not block the company from setting up its international headquarters in London. But the rules will stop TikTok from moving user data out of the country. (Kitty Donaldson, Katharine Gemmell and Nate Lanxon / Bloomberg)
A group of more than 2,000 online sellers filed an antitrust lawsuit against Amazon in India. The suit alleges Amazon favors some vendors who sell goods at a discount and drive out independent retailers. (Aditya Kalra / Reuters)
⭐ The main administrator of Scottish Wikipedia is an American who doesn’t know any Scots, and instead writes articles in strangely misspelled English. The situation highlights a major problem for the site — many language editions of Wikipedia only have a few editors, and those people have an outsized control over what ends up on the site. Edward Ongweso Jr. at Vice describes the problem:
For example, it was found a few years ago that an admin of Croatian Wikipedia was a Holocaust denier, and was inserting those views into Croatian Wikipedia articles. There was little anyone could do to stop them. Because Wikipedia ranks so highly on Google and has become seen as a trusted, neutral source of information, it is often used by machine learning researchers as a corpus to train languages on, and by ordinary people as a first entry point into a topic.
The Reddit post goes on to argue that the damage done by Amaryllis may be more severe than anyone anticipates. Before all of this had even started, there was apparently a poor conception of the Scots language that stemmed directly from the state of its Wikipedia. As a result, “this person has possibly done more damage to the Scots language than anyone else in history.” Because of their “cultural vandalism,” it’s possible that many people think Scots is a “horribly mangled rendering of English” rather than a language of its own.
Microsoft planned to take a small stake in TikTok and become one of the app’s minority investors. Then President Trump got involved, and the quiet deal became an international soap opera. This story charts how it happened. (Mike Isaac and Andrew Ross Sorkin / The New York Times)
SoftBank is considering getting involved in a possible TikTok acquisition. It’s unclear whether SoftBank wants to team up with another entity on an existing bid or create a new effort. But because SoftBank is a Japanese firm, it seems unlikely the Trump Administration would go for it. (Jessica E. Lessin / The Information)
YouTube creators are calling out TikTok stars for continuing to party during the pandemic. TikTok doesn’t have the same type of commentary culture as platforms like Instagram and YouTube, where the name-and-shame game continues to thrive. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)
Facebook is accelerating the launch of the News tab outside the US. The company is working out deals to pay publishers in several countries to include their content in the tab. (Sara Fischer / Axios)
Facebook updated Messenger Rooms to make the feature easier to discover and allow people to further personalize their Rooms experience. The change comes after Messenger dipped slightly from the top of the App Store last week. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)
Google promoted Halimah DeLaine Prado to be the company’s new general counsel. The news comes in a moment of intense antitrust scrutiny for the tech giant. (Kyle Daly / Axios)
We should probably be more careful about how much data access we give the apps on our phone. Some, like Google Maps, need location data to be helpful. But if you’re only using TikTok to scroll through other peoples’ videos, you don’t need to give the app access to your camera and microphone. (Brian X. Chen / The New York Times)