21 August 2020

The New York Times: “Apple Shows Facebook Who Has the Power in an App Dispute”

The situation stemmed from a dispute after Facebook violated Apple’s rules by publicly distributing a research app that allowed it to snoop on users’ online activity. When Apple discovered the transgression this week, it revoked Facebook’s special access to apps and updates that run on its iPhone software.

That immediately cut off Facebook’s 35,000 workers from its internal iPhone apps. And the problem snowballed when mobile apps like Workplace and Messenger — two internal communication tools — also stopped working, frustrating employees and resulting in hours of lost productivity.

Late Thursday, Apple relented and restored Facebook’s access. Yet the episode was a stark reminder of where the power really lies in the technology world. While Facebook is the world’s biggest social network, Apple controls the distribution of apps — including Facebook’s — on its phones. That power is a longstanding concern for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, making his company beholden to the rules of others.

Mike Isaac

Since I’m diving back into old articles lately, time to reach even further back, to January 2019, when one morning Apple decided to punish Facebook for their privacy transgressions and breach of Apple’s enterprise program. There is nothing to say to defend Facebook’s practices – in fact Google was caught collecting data in similar fashion and was handed the same temporary punishment – but the incident highlighted once more the enormous power Apple wields over its app ecosystem.

All that said: the team within Facebook that built this market-research program appears to have acted recklessly, given the stakes for their fellow employees. I hate riffing on the company’s old move-fast-and-break-things motto more than most journalists who cover the company, but here is a case where Facebook’s decision to empower its engineers to ship almost anything with a minimum of review has truly come back to haunt it.

But for all the attention we’re paying to Facebook’s moves here, I hope we spare at least as much for Apple. If Tim Cook can wreak this much havoc on Facebook’s day, however justified, just imagine what power Apple holds over the rest of us.

Casey Newton

At the same time it’s becoming increasingly evident how this power is applied unevenly and belatedly. The “Facebook Research” VPN app that started this short quarrel between tech giants was active since 2016, while Google’s Screenwise was first launched in 2012 – yet Apple took no public action against them prior to the publication of the report in TechCrunch. Afterwards it was revealed that many other companies abused the enterprise certificate system to distribute pirated versions of popular apps, as well as porn and gambling apps officially banned from the App Store. Despite tightening their rules last year, the situation repeated in February with Clearview AI, which Apple also suspended following an investigation.

Now Epic Games is suing Apple after being banned from the App Store. Unlike Facebook and Google, who kept their heads low hoping not to attract unwanted attention on their practices, Epic has openly challenged Apple to a fight over legal terms and public opinion. Despite their reach, it looks like Facebook and Google are more dependent on Apple’s iOS ecosystem than they care to admit.

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