A new feature is being introduced to iPhones and iPads last week, causing a huge rift between Apple and Facebook.
It will allow device users to say no to having their data collected by any app. Facebook has been put in a spin by this because user data – and the advertising it can generate – is what makes the company so profitable. This update could cause a severe blow to its business model.
The row focuses on a unique device identifier called the IDFA (identifier for advertisers). Companies that sell mobile ads, like Facebook, use this IDFA to both target ads and estimate their effectiveness. The IDFA can also be paired with another tech, such as Facebook’s tracking pixels or tracking cookies, which follow users around the web, to learn even more about you.
Apple has little interest in its customers’ data because it makes money from selling devices and in-app purchases, rather than from advertising. Plus it has always marketed itself as a privacy-first company.
In 2010 Steve Jobs acknowledged that some people didn’t care about how much data they shared, but said they should always be informed of how it was being used. He noted:
“Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain English and repeatedly… ask them, ask them every time.”
Apple is baking privacy into its systems. Its browser Safari already blocks third-party cookies by default, and last year Apple forced app providers in iOS to spell out in the App Store listings what data they collect.
Facebook has warned that the app update could cut the money earned through its ad network by half, hitting small businesses the hardest. And it argues that sharing data with advertisers is key to giving users “better experiences”.
It also says that Apple is being hypocritical because it will force businesses to turn to subscriptions and other in-app payments for revenue, from which Apple takes a cut.
As it often does when under pressure, Facebook has gone on a PR offensive. It took out adverts in national newspapers in December, featuring small businesses talking about how they only survived the pandemic thanks to targeted ads.
Facebook appeared to accept the changes and promised “new advertiser experiences and measurement protocols”. In recent years, governments and regulators have become increasingly concerned about just how big and complex the ecosystem around websites, apps and social media companies has become.
Technology consultant Max Kalmykov wrote that advertisers had to “prepare for the next, privacy-focused era of digital advertising“. This may include contextual ads, such as fashion-related ads appearing only on websites about fashion rather than randomly following people across the web.
Ad placements on podcasts or with influencers would be another non-intrusive way of advertising, he suggested. Apple adds that it supports the ad industry, and has introduced new free tools that let advertisers know how successful a campaign has been, without revealing individual users’ identities.
What is more, if you don’t have a unique number attached to a device, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be tracked. Device fingerprinting combines certain attributes of a device – such as the operating system it uses, the type and version of a web browser and the device’s IP address to identify it uniquely.