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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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?