What’s behind the Apple-Facebook feud?

  • >> Shira Ovide, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-04-27 13:09:12 BdST

The chief executives of Facebook and Apple have opposing visions for the future of the internet. Their differences are set to escalate. The New York Times

Starting on Monday, people with iPhones will begin to see pop-up messages on their screens asking whether they will permit companies to follow them from app to app.

Currently, Facebook and companies like it track the ways people use their phones, picking up bits of information such as how often they open their yoga app and what they buy at Target. Facebook then uses that information to help companies target their ads.

Apple says that it wants people to have a choice about participating in this information-harvesting system. Facebook says these ads help make the internet free for all. These two companies have incompatible views of the future of digital life, and they really don’t like each other, as my colleagues Mike Isaac and Jack Nicas detailed.

Jack talked to me about why we should pay attention to a fight between two tech giants, and which company is right. Spoiler alert: They’re both a little right, and a little gross.

Shira: What does this new iPhone feature do, and why is Facebook so mad about it?

Jack: With the latest iPhone software update, companies and advertisers must ask explicit permission — in the form of yes-or-no messages that pop up on the screen — to track people from one app to another.

Many app companies, including Facebook, have predicted that large numbers of people will say no. And that means companies that rely on showing people online ads may have less data to fine tune the ads based on our activity and interests.

Why should people care about this long-running beef between Apple and Facebook?

The winner could decide the shape of the consumer internet going forward. Apple’s view is that people should pay a premium, often to Apple, to have a private, safe experience in digital spaces. Facebook’s position is that the internet should remain open and free, and that advertisers have made that possible.

So who’s right: Apple or Facebook?

Each company has a point, and each one is also hypocritical.

Facebook is right that billions of people have been able to get access to social networks, email, news and entertainment because they’re paid for by ads. The company’s message is that this system needs data on us to advertise effectively and efficiently.

And Apple is right that digital advertising largely operates without people’s true consent or knowledge.

Apple’s message seems simpler.

That’s true. Apple’s view is that it’s simply giving people a choice of whether to be tracked across apps or not. Facebook’s argument to the public is more complex — that they have to be tracked for the internet to work, and that people don’t know what’s good for them.

Wait, let’s go back to the hypocrisy part.

Facebook is worried about its own profits being hurt by Apple’s new feature. It has mostly focused, though, on making the smaller businesses that advertise on Facebook the face of its opposition to Apple’s app-tracking feature. Yes, smaller companies could be hurt, but it’s fair to ask whether my local pizzeria needs to know what I’m doing on a fitness app to effectively advertise to me.

And Apple won’t admit that what it’s doing is great for the company, not just iPhone owners. It’s good marketing to be able to say that iPhones are the place for privacy. Apple also says that targeted digital advertising is dangerous, but it gets billions of dollars each year from Google, the biggest targeted ad company.

Is it possible that this iPhone app-tracking feature won’t be a big deal?

To be honest, yes. It’s not easy to predict the impact of this iPhone change or whether companies will counter it with different information-gathering methods. There’s a chance that lots of people say no to app tracking when iPhones offer the choice, but the advertising industry keeps chugging along.


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