28 June 2018

The Verge: “Apple just took a shot at Facebook’s web-tracking empire”

In technical terms, the change has to do with how Safari loads content, and how much information it gives to the site it’s loading. Browsers typically offer up your login token to any plug-in that asks for it, but the new Safari holds back, asking for specific permission before telling “share” buttons or comments sections who you are. That also applies to Facebook comments on third-party sites, the specific feature demoed by Federighi. Facebook was the company called out onstage, but it also has real consequences for Google, Facebook’s only real competitor in targeted ads.

There are other ways to track people on the web, but Safari takes aim at some of them, too, pulling back information on existing plug-ins, fonts, and other configurations. In Federighi’s terms, the result is to make your Mac look like all the other Macs, which makes it harder for advertisers to track you passively. It’s a major technique, and it will be a lot harder to pull off in the new Safari.

Russell Brandom

Basically Apple implemented in Safari a set of privacy rules similar to what GDPR put into law in the EU. It never ceases to amaze me how so many people have completely opposite reactions to (mostly) the same privacy framework: if it’s coming from Apple, it gets praised all over the Internet, as if Apple were the only bastion of privacy left in the world; but when it’s the EU putting these rules forth, people are moaning and complaining that an out-of-touch bureaucracy is trying to break the Internet and endanger innovation. It could come down to Americans’ growing distrust of a centralized state, and admiration of tech companies, but unfortunately it’s an unhealthy attitude that only serves to cement tech’s dominance over certain markets.

The reality is, this sort of decisions that impact the lives of every citizen should be reached at a government level, preferably by democratic means, not through the unilateral actions of a giant corporation with its own agenda. No matter how much customers love and trust Apple, its strategy is designed to maximize profit, to please a certain set of people and to hurt competitors, not to insure the wellbeing of all citizens. One might even argue that, by blocking tracking by default, Apple is intervening on the ad market in a way that restricts competition, affecting not only the big players like Facebook and Google, but many other smaller companies that could go out of business. This is especially concerning in light of recent reports that Apple is considering expanding its ad network for iPhone apps, thus entering into direct competition on the advertising market. It’s one situation where the government might consider intervening to restrict Apple from exercising its outsized influence for its own gain.

On the other hand, I very much doubt this measure will have a noticeable effect, even inside Apple’s ecosystem. It’s not very clear from the coverage I've read, but I’m reasonably sure this applies to desktop Safari only, which has a minuscule market share – prior measures to reduce tracking introduced last year have had little impact. On top of that, the majority of mobile traffic runs through apps nowadays, where developers can track users however much they want (at least for now). Despite the headlines, I feel this is mostly a marketing move to position Apple against Facebook and Google in the minds of consumers, without much real-world impact. 

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