Tech

The Apple-Facebook war is heating up. We may not like who wins.

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Well that escalated quickly.

At about 11:55 a.m. Pacific Time on Monday, Apple Senior Vice President Craig Federighi took the ongoing war of words between his company and Facebook to a new level. 

Federighi declared that, in the upcoming version of mac OS, Apple would shut down the practice of ad networks tracking users via Like buttons and comment fields.

Facebook is probably not quivering in its boots. These protections, called Intelligent Tracking Prevention, only exist in Safari, Apple’s homegrown browser — which has only a 13.8% market share on desktop computers worldwide. Google Chrome is the leader in this space, installed on 58.1% of desktops.

It seems unlikely that Google, which makes 86% of its revenue from advertising, would implement a change so openly hostile to its business model.

Yes, Safari is the biggest fish in mobile browsing (with 51.7% of the market) — and Apple clarified to Mashable that Intelligent Tracking Prevention extends to mobile — but it’s also where users tend to interact with Facebook and its many partners via apps.

But the night is young. There is growing concern among consumers about their data, and fears of tech companies being careless with it. And Facebook is ground zero for these concerns. 

For many users, the default position now is to assume tech companies can’t be trusted with the data they harvest — and so the less you share, the better.

This mindset was on full display in Sunday’s New York Times report about how Facebook gave device manufacturers access to a large amount of personal data so they could recreate “Facebook-like” experiences. 

So far, there’s no evidence those manufacturers harvested or misused that data for their own purposes, as was the case with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Still, there’s no question Apple is riding the privacy wave as hard as it can. 

Before this week, you could have chalked up the ongoing war of words between Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg as a game of defense. One player would only needle the other when pressed to do so by the media (MSNBC for Cook, the Ezra Klein podcast for Zuckerberg).

With the changes in Safari, however, Apple has switched to playing offense. The news wasn’t well-received in Palo Alto. Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos hit back on Twitter, dismissing Apple’s move as “virtue signaling.” (Things got even weirder after that.)

You can argue about how effective these precise changes will be. But it’s clear Apple is willing to put its money where its mouth is when Cook says (and has said repeatedly), “Privacy is a fundamental human right.” A cynical person might hear “Privacy is a very hot topic right now and we see it as something to lean into to market our products better.” 

Still, Apple has been beating this drum for a while. When it unveiled Apple Pay in 2014, the company made sure to emphasize it didn’t want to know anything about what you bought, and went out of its way to develop its AI tech in a manner where individual users weren’t “profiled.”  

So it’s a little confusing that Apple is reported to be in talks to create its own ad business that could enable it to sell advertising across its ecosystem of devices. That is just a rumor at this point. But depending on how it uses tracking technology, Apple getting into the ad-tech business could easily undermine the privacy-centric image it’s cultivated over the past several years.

The move does make sense in another context, though. Apple sees a huge market that’s enabled by its devices (88 percent of Facebook’s revenue is from mobile) and it wants a piece of that action. Tim Cook may feel he can do a better job than the current players. Undermining Facebook is a bonus.

Ultimately, that’s why Zuckerberg has reason to worry: Facebook needs Apple far more than Apple needs Facebook. Without hardware, Facebook doesn’t exist — but to Apple, Facebook’s just another app. There are plenty of others eager to eat up more iPhone users’ time. 

In some circles it has become de rigueur to get rid of the Facebook app, or at least use it less. Oh, and Apple’s making that easier, too.

In any case, the Cold War between Apple and Facebook is heating up. It’s a proxy battle in our broader struggle to balance privacy with ever-more-helpful technology. 

Apple has the upper hand for now — but it’s also expanding its news apps, getting deeper into original content, and then there’s that rumored ad network in the works. 

If it’s not careful, Apple might become the very thing it’s trying to fight. 

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