paper io

Facebook is still bitter about Apple’s latest update to iOS. As a reminder, Apple added a requirement to iOS 14.5, known as App Tracking Transparency (ATT) that requires developers to request permission before tracking users. It’s not all that surprising that Facebook is upset, especially when you consider some studies show that as many as 94 percent of users opt-out of tracking when given a choice.

Despite Facebook’s frustration with Apple’s changes, it appears the social media giant still doesn’t quite understand something that is plainly obvious to everyone else–people actually value their privacy. I say this as I just finished reading through an academic research paper–sponsored by Facebook–that claims Apple’s move is anti-competitive:

Apple’s iOS 14 update represents an anti-competitive strategy disguised as a privacy-protecting measure. Apple now prohibits non-Apple apps from using information essential to providing relevant, personalized advertising, without explicit user opt-in. And users may opt-in only after they are shown an ominous and misleading prompt about “tracking,” one that Apple’s own apps and services need not display, because consumers are automatically “opted in” to Apple’s own tracking.

To be clear, there’s an interesting word play happening here when these companies talk about “tracking.” Apple defines “tracking” as an app gathering data that is shared with another service. It’s really only talking about third-party tracking.

First-party tracking, where an app tracks what you do within that app, and then uses that information for purposes of advertising, is allowed, and developers don’t have to ask permission for this. That’s true for Apple, and it’s true for Facebook. Facebook’s problem is that its business model is based on collecting data about what you do on other apps and websites. That’s the part affected by ATT.

But there’s something far more important that the paper makes clear: Facebook thinks this fight is between Facebook and Apple. It isn’t. It’s between Facebook and its users. After all, it’s Facebook’s users who end up losing when they aren’t given a choice.

But Facebook exists in a reality distortion field when it comes to privacy, and that’s a problem. Facebook believes that its ends justify its means, and as such, anything that gets in the way of those ends is wrong. Facebook thinks that personalized advertising is a benefit to society. Maybe it is. I know there are very smart people that would make that case. It’s not, however, more beneficial than giving people a choice over how their data is used.

Here’s the analogy I’ve used in the past:

Imagine if Facebook sent someone to your home to peek in your bathroom window to see what kind of shampoo or toilet paper you used. Then, using that information, it showed you ads and sent you offers for those products.

Facebook might argue that there is a benefit to having the ads highly targeted to the products you actually use. It might argue that it helps advertisers by making their ads more effective since they are only shown to people who are likely to buy.

All of that might be true, except no one would take you seriously because there isn’t anyone who thinks letting Facebook snoop on you while you’re in the shower is a good idea. And, anyone who did think it was a good idea would at least agree that people should be given a choice about whether to shut the blinds or not.

Facebook doesn’t want to talk about that, however. Instead, it’s trying to make the case that Apple is doing something wrong because it happens to benefit from its privacy stance.

Here’s the part it seems like Facebook doesn’t understand. It’s entirely possible to do the right thing for users (give them choice over how their data is used) and still benefit as a business. That just means you’ve figured out a great business model.

Facebook, on the other hand, doesn’t want users to have a choice, and it can’t seem to wrap its mind around the idea that, when given a choice, people might not be so interested in having their information tracked. All of the talk about how this is self-serving because Apple makes money selling services is absolutely true. It just also happens to be better for users.

People win when they are given choice over what happens. This paper assumes that if you ask people permission, they’re likely to say no. It equates “asking permission to track,” with “prohibiting tracking,” which isn’t true. Apple didn’t forbid tracking, it simply said that you have to ask permission.

At the same time, isn’t it true that if people are likely to opt out of tracking, shouldn’t that be a signal that tracking isn’t great? And, even if tracking is a good thing, shouldn’t people have the option over whether they are tracked or not?

On the other hand, if your business model suffers because users are given a choice about whether to let you track them, that’s not a problem with Apple, it’s a problem with the business model.