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You’re Still the Loser in Apple and Facebook’s War Over Privacy

What the Apple versus Facebook fight dramatizes is less two competing visions of the internet than which tech titan’s walled garden one might prefer.

Apple CEO Tim Cook places his hands together and speaks via video conference during the House’s Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law Subcommittee hearing.

In recent years Apple has moved aggressively to brand itself as a privacy-friendly company that stands in contrast to competitors like Facebook and Google, whose Android operating system runs at least 70 percent of smartphones globally. (In the United States, Apple’s iOS has a slight edge in market share over Android.) Apple calls privacy “a fundamental human right” and “one of our core values,” a mantra it’s invoked repeatedly in recent keynote presentations and advertising blitzes.

This week, Apple is following up its rhetoric with a modest but potentially consequential action, as the company unveils an iOS feature that allows users to prevent apps from tracking what they do with other apps—like when you open the BBC News app and you see a prompt asking if you want to let the BBC track your activity when you’re doing other things on your phone (in order to serve up better-targeted ads, these apps usually claim). As if to dispense with any doubt over the feature’s purpose, Apple has circulated a sample notification demonstrating that it can be used to limit Facebook from tracking user activity.

Described by The New York Times as one of the company’s “most anticipated software updates” in years, the new feature has come to stand in for the brewing war between the two tech giants, which pits Apple CEO Tim Cook against Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “We believe users should have the choice over the data that is being collected about them and how it’s used,” Cook tweeted in December. Facebook, in turn, has cast Apple’s privacy-enhancing moves as a strike against the open and free internet—one that Facebook has managed to cast a data dragnet over—depicting the move as part of a larger effort to funnel users toward subscription services, from which Apple can take a cut. “This is going to have a real impact on the internet as we know it, which is increasingly going to move to a paid experience,” Facebook’s director of privacy and public policy told NPR back in February.

While it’s easy to give this round to Apple, both companies are dealing in the self-serving language of spin. Neither Facebook nor Apple should be trusted as a benevolent sovereign to guide the direction of the internet or digital communications. What the Apple versus Facebook fight dramatizes is less two competing visions of the internet than which tech titan’s walled garden one might prefer: the gilded environs of Apple—where premium products still pack some surveillance features but are slathered in the company’s hazy rhetoric of consumer empowerment—or that of info-hungry Facebook, Google, and their partners in the personal data trade. Both come at a cost beyond their sticker price, and no matter who wins here, consumers are going to be paying—with their wallets and their data—for a long time to come.

As part of its larger privacy pivot, this month, Apple published a document called “A Day in the Life of Your Data” that, using the story of a father and daughter planning a trip to the park, describes the vast web of trackers and data brokers collecting information about practically everything we do. “The average app has 6 trackers,” the document warns, noting that “the majority of popular Android and iOS apps have embedded trackers.” By the end of their park excursion, the document says, “a number of companies John has never interacted with, all around the world, have updated their profiles with information about him and his daughter.” In the face of this invasive behavior—abetted by iOS apps that themselves come bearing tracking code—Apple wants users to know it abides by principles like “data minimization”—collecting only the necessary amount of data required for a service—and “user transparency and control.”

What’s clear from this abbreviated tour through the world of data collection is that Apple and its products are heavily wrapped up in surveillance-as-a-business-model, even if the bulk of Apple’s revenues comes from selling physical goods and digital services. Apple still makes a hefty $2 billion per year from advertising—a number that some analysts think could surge in the next few years as services like Apple TV+ provide the company with a larger footprint in people’s homes. Google pays Apple $8 to $12 billion per year to be the default search engine on the iPhone—an especially coveted position that allows Google to gather tons of data on iPhone owners. (While Apple does collect information on a range of user activities, it claims that that information is not passed on to other companies and that ads are targeted based on anonymized behaviors.)

This conflict is also based on a dubious premise: that privacy is the only applicable value when choosing between these two companies and their competing techno-ideological visions. Apple’s labor history—from a Steve Jobs–led wage-fixing scheme to brutal factory conditions in Asia—is worthy of condemnation on its own. As Ian Bogost has written (and as that Apple privacy white paper confirms), Apple’s vast app store is a key cog in the surveillance-capitalist machine. If Apple were truly committed to privacy, the company would use its influential app store to “ban companies whose data-collection and usage practices are incompatible with its supposedly progressive position,” Bogost noted, and it would deploy its enormous cash reserves—now pegged at $195.57 billion—to develop alternative apps and services.

Facebook’s history of privacy missteps and avaricious data collection hardly needs recapitulating. The company has become a massive dealer in free services precisely by monetizing the behaviors and attention of its users. Its view into consumers’ lives is practically total. By the standard of consumer privacy—an important but by no means all-encompassing metric—Facebook falls well short of Apple.

But we are in hazardous territory when a company rife with labor exploitation, and which is only now throwing up privacy barricades that might, barely, put a dent in its rivals’ data collection, is considered a friend to consumers. That is doubly true when many consumers can’t afford its products and the boutique form of privacy it offers. Their competitors are no better: The “open and free internet” that Zuckerberg pines for will not be found in Apple-approved apps or on Facebook-monitored websites. By constantly hearkening back to a more innocent, prelapsarian vision of an unfettered internet that can never be recovered, Zuckerberg is casting himself and Facebook in a position they don’t deserve. Certainly we need a new vision for how people live and work online—one that decouples communication from surveillance—but tech giants won’t be the ones to bring it into being. Their interests are too vast, their support of the status quo that has enriched them is practically guaranteed. They need the very thing they value most: disruption.