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The Apple-Facebook feud is now a shooting war

January 30 · Issue #282 · View online
The Interface
Programming note: I’m on assignment tomorrow and Friday. The Interface will return on Monday.
At around 2:30 a.m. ET on Wednesday, Facebook sent me an update about the controversial market research program revealed on Tuesday by TechCrunch. Effective immediately, the company said, the program would end on Apple devices. It also took issue with some of the language in TechCrunch‘s report:
“Key facts about this market research program are being ignored,” the company said. “Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”
Some of that, I think, is fair: it seems wrong to call a program advertised publicly on various apps, and known as Facebook Research, a secret spying program. On the other hand, the percentage of teens who participated seems less relevant than the fact that they were targeted to begin with, even if it was emphasized in headlines (including my own). The “parental consent form” was a screen that anyone could quickly tap past.
What I didn’t know in the wee hours of Wednesday morning was that Facebook had already lost the general argument to its chief regulator in this case: Apple, which last night took steps to invalidate the root certificates enabling both the market research program and every single app that Facebook uses for internal testing purposes, for tens of thousands of employees around the world. Here are Tom Warren and Jake Kastrenakes:
Apple has shut down Facebook’s ability to distribute internal iOS apps, from early releases of the Facebook app to basic tools like a lunch menu. A person familiar with the situation tells The Verge that early versions of Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and other pre-release “dogfood” (beta) apps have stopped working, as have other employee apps, like one for transportation. Facebook is treating this as a critical problem internally, we’re told, as the affected apps simply don’t launch on employees’ phones anymore.
As I noted here yesterday, tensions between Apple and Facebook have been high for some time now. For Apple CEO Tim Cook, Facebook and its fellow ad-supported tech giant, Google, make for convenient punching bags. Last year, in a speech about privacy as a human right, he referred to the companies as “the data-industrial complex.” Cook wants to promote the idea that iOS devices are more valuable than others because they don’t use an advertising-based business model. (His rhetoric escalated sharply in 2016, after Apple’s five-year quest to build an advertising-based business model of its own sputtered and collapsed.)
Facebook has pushed back, lightly: Mark Zuckerberg called Cook’s comments about Facebook’s business model “extremely glib” last year. But Zuckerberg can only ever go so far. Cook can flip a switch that removes the Facebook app from the devices of every iOS user. Facebook may be one of the most powerful companies in the world — but viewed in this way, it begins to look quite weak.
By invalidating Facebook’s enterprise certificate today, Cook flipped one of his lesser switches. And the result inside Facebook today was chaos, Rob Price reports. (Others told me much the same.)
The move dramatically escalated tensions between Facebook and Apple, and has left Facebook employees unable to communicate with colleagues, access internal information, and even use company transportation.
The move dramatically escalated tensions between Facebook and Apple, and has left Facebook employees unable to communicate with colleagues, access internal information, and even use company transportation.
And just like that, Facebook’s entire day was wasted. What had been a cold conflict had suddenly escalated into a shooting war.
The argument against Facebook’s market research effort goes something like this: at a time when it faces mounting concerns over its data-collection practices, the company made an end-run around Apple developer policies to slurp up some of the most sensitive data a person has, including some belonging to teenagers.
That includes data from the friends of people who volunteered to participate — which, as Issie Lapowsky notes, was at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. And lawmakers wondered whether some of the people who Facebook targeted — which included children as young as 13 — could even meaningfully offer their consent. “Wiretapping teens is not research, and it should never be permissible.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said in a statement.
Moreover, pro-privacy Apple would likely recoil at the prospect of more companies following in Facebook’s footsteps and seeking root-level access of customers’ phones, even if those companies were paying people for the privilege. It’s not hard to imagine what a single bad actor could do with that level of control over individual devices.
But there’s an argument for Facebook’s kind of research, too, and I heard it from some of you. One is that it’s common — and indeed, by the end of the day, Google had to remove a similar app from its enterprise development program. (The company escaped punishment from Apple after issuing an abject apology.) Two is that Facebook’s program sought and obtained consent from its participants, and that to say people shouldn’t have been able to offer their consent is oddly patronizing. Three is that by paying its volunteers, it essentially made them contractors — offering a fig-leaf defense of the move to include Facebook Research among the company’s enterprise app deployments.
For those who believe that Facebook should be compelled to obtain and retain less consumer data, today likely felt like a win. In this view, Apple stepped in protected consumers. ("It’s weird but probably necessary/inevitable that Apple is now Facebook’s de facto privacy regulator,” the New York Times‘ Kevin Roose tweeted.)
But if you’re more interested in competition, today’s news may give you a chill. One giant platform declared another giant platform’s market research program inappropriate, then disappeared it with a Thanos-style finger snap. In the words of my boss, Nilay Patel:
Hi, I’m the nagging voice in the back of your head pointing out that it’s pretty intense that Apple can simply decide to prevent people from running code on their phones.
Facebook is an enlightened dictatorship, but so is Apple. Tim Cook and his lieutenants dictate the terms of an enormous economy, and can change that economy on a whim. Today Apple may have acted out of consistency with its privacy principles, to the benefit of some consumers. (And to the detriment of anyone who was counting on that $20 gift card!) But as Apple faces more pressure to serve as, as Roose put it, de facto privacy regulator, we may find ourselves uncomfortable with its monopolistic power.
Concerns in this area have been developing over the past several years as the iPhone has matured as a development platform. Apple is currently the subject of a lawsuit, now before the Supreme Court, alleging that its App Store monopoly results in customers being overcharged. I suspect there is more of this kind of scrutiny ahead.
All that said: the team within Facebook that built this market-research program appears to have acted recklessly, given the stakes for their fellow employees. I hate riffing on the company’s old move-fast-and-break-things motto more than most journalists who cover the company, but here is a case where Facebook’s decision to empower its engineers to ship almost anything with a minimum of review has truly come back to haunt it.
I still believe Facebook would be well served to consider how it might seek less user data, and to develop new programs around purging the data the company has already collected. It could buy the company goodwill at a time when that is in dangerously short supply. Or perhaps it will simply look at today’s stellar earnings report as proof that once again, a media dogpile failed to account for the authentic affection its 2 billion users have for its products, whatever missteps it makes along the way.
But for all the attention we’re paying to Facebook’s moves here, I hope we spare at least as much for Apple. If Tim Cook can wreak this much havoc on Facebook’s day, however justified, just imagine what power Apple holds over the rest of us.

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How Technologists Can Help Counter Misinformation and Other Social Harms
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The BuzzFeed Layoffs as Democratic Emergency
An Anti-Facebook Manifesto, by an Early Facebook Investor
And finally ...
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