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Will Apple’s privacy gambit checkmate Facebook and Co?

Apple is doing to FB & Co what it did to IBM & Co in 1984

by: - Last updated on: December 25th, 2020
Key Takeaways
  • Apple has recently made more changes that force developers to explicitly disclose all the data they collect from users.
  • Facebook is clearly not happy with this considering how massive its data collection is.
  • This move by Apple is very similar to what they did to IBM in 1984 with the Mac.
  • For more such coverage around the Apple ecosystem, follow our Apple Blog hub.

Remember that epic 1984 Macintosh ad? The one in which a girl runs into a room full of people who seem hypnotized by a figure on the screen, and then throws a hammer at that very screen, seemingly shattering the status quo. If you don’t remember it, take a look at the ad once again – it is well worth it.

apple privacy

A little bit of context – the 1984 ad was supposed to showcase how the Macintosh was radically different from all the other computers out there. How it represented a different world from the uniform, predictable one which was being controlled by a “Big Brother” (IBM in that case) who was actually restricting you for its own benefit. The Macintosh was the hammer thrown at that world of uniformity. And while its competitors DID hit back, they were rocked badly by the move to a graphic user interface and the addition of a mouse.

Throwing a hammer at FB & Co?

Well, Apple’s move on the privacy front seems like a similar hammer thrown at another world that was getting far too comfortable with itself. The world of ads based on user information. Almost everyone and their grandmother have absent-mindedly tapped on “OK” when confronted by a pop up telling them that a website would like to use cookies to get information about them or an app would like to access camera, contacts or maps, or some other part of your device. Almost everyone has known that the information gathered thus is used for advertising purposes. That is how you often get ads that refer to products and services you have often browsed, or in some cases, get e-mails and alerts from organizations and brands that refer to products we have browsed.

It is a world most of us have by and large accepted and are at peace with. Yes, there is the odd outbreak of outrage over privacy from time to time – such as witnessed when allegations were leveled at Xiaomi in India for placing ads in its UI and for sending user information out of India. The point to be noted is that there was no actual issue with the company collecting information, just about where it was being stored and sent (China, said the doubters, which at the time was the Great Indian Enemy). Whether it is pop up ads or customized banner ads on a site or on a YouTube channel, people have more or less reconciled themselves to living with an ad, ad world, notwithstanding all the harrumphing and warnings from privacy experts.

A bit like so many had got used to clunky computers with complicated commands in the early 1980s. No, it was not perfect. Yes, it had problems. But that was the way things were, and people had sort of accepted them.

The Macintosh verily put the cat among the comfortably cooing computer pigeons.

It’s their data, surely they should know? The users, I mean

privacy

And I suspect Apple’s privacy gambit will do the same. Under the app labels system, developers will have to disclose how they are collecting and using user data. That is not as innocuous as it sounds – check how much data Facebook collects if you do not believe us. Apple is not doing something militant or radical – it is just showing us the amount of data that we are giving away to be leveraged for commercial purposes. On the flip side, yes, giving this data does enable us to enjoy many services for free or at lower costs, but on the flip side, for users, this simply meant consenting to what seemed like a few trivial conditions. Seeing the data that has been collected as a result of those permissions changes one’s perspective. Quite thoroughly.

And things are going to get even tougher for the data collectors come 2021 when app and site developers will have to ask users for permission to gather data and track them on iOS and Apple devices. Those routine notifications and pop-ups that users simply consented to are set to get more complicated. And that means users might not consent to them just as readily. And that throws a royal spanner in the ad-earning works of many brands. A lot of brands that had been using “targeted advertising” thanks to those permissions would not be able to do so and of course, the earnings of sites that host such ads would be adversely hit too.

Facebook has already sounded the alarm in this regard with full-page ads highlighting how Apple’s move could endanger small businesses that make significant earnings through targeted ads. Apple’s new line of privacy is likely to also force many sites and apps that were relying on ads to go for subscription-based models, depriving users of what had been “free” services in the past. A lot of people also feel that the real reason for the ad attack is the fact that the new privacy measures will highlight Facebook’s own massive user data drain. There is then a group that insists that it is important to highlight the safeguards brands are taking to protect the data they collect and not just highlight the data they collect from users. And of course, everyone has been quick to point out that it suits Apple to attack those who depend on advertising because the Cupertino brand does not depend as heavily on ads.

No one is stopping the ads, fellas…no, really!

The big question, as I see it, however, is not who depends on ads or who does not but the whole issue of consumer data. As far as I can see, Apple has made no move to stop anyone from placing ads on an app or a website. What it simply has put in place is a system where people ask for your data before using it. In the past, this permission was given without much thought, but now people might think a bit more before giving it. In many cases, users were not aware of the data they were giving out and how it would be used. Now they will. Considering that it is THEIR data that is being monetized by others, surely that is not unfair?

Yes, of course, the move will make life tougher for some businesses, apps, and sites. But that is likely to be only for a while. And businesses developers could counteract this by perhaps providing greater assurances of security or increasing the number of app supported facilities to make users feel that they are getting a lot in exchange for their data. For the fact is that if consumers are used to not paying for an ad-supported service, there is a good chance that they will continue to use it, even after they know the amount of data they are sharing and the extent to which it is being used – provided they know the data will not be misused.

Let’s be brutal about it – many sites are basically collecting user data and selling it to others, often based on a very token consent from the users, who often have to choose between clicking OK quickly and getting on with using a service or reading miles of legalese that would confuse elite legal teams. Well, Apple just made that legalese very easy to understand. So suddenly the consumer will have more than just a “vague” sort of idea not just about the sort of data they are handing over but also how it is being used. I am touched by Facebook’s concern for small businesses but would like to see some of the same concern for its users whose data is being peddled will-nilly. A more sensible approach would be to perhaps have a more transparent data policy – why on earth does it need to be cloaked and secrecy anyway?

Apple’s privacy gambit might have been aimed at Facebook (and/or Google and just about anyone who utilizes user data for revenues), but it has also alerted users to the amount of data they were sharing and how it was being used. And honestly, we do not think that is a bad thing. When Apple had released the Macintosh in 1984, there had been an outcry about how developers would find it difficult to make apps for the new platform and how users would struggle to adjust to the new interface, and how the industry itself would be adversely affected by the move. Barely a decade later, a GUI was the rule and mouses became mainstream.

For all of Facebook’s outrage, I feel Apple’s privacy move might have the same effect. Five years down the line, apps and sites are likely to be more open with the consumer about how they use their data, and what they provide in exchange. And that is not a bad thing in my opinion. Zuckerberg and Co might be better advised to come out with improved data disclosure and protection options, instead of complainingly (b)ad-ly on front pages. Yes, Apple might not be a crusader for consumers – it is a commercial company at the end of the day, but there is no doubt that its latest move will empower consumers.

Since when was that a bad thing?

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  1. I think this is a good step because at the current world nothing is more precious than data and Apple’s step will add an extra layer of security to it.