19 May 2021

Mobile Dev Memo: “Apple robbed the mob’s bank”

With ATT, Apple has robbed the mob’s bank. In bolstering its ads business while severely handicapping other advertising platforms — but especially Facebook — with the introduction of a privacy policy that effectively breaks the mechanic that those platforms use to target ads, Apple has taken money from a party that is so unsympathetic that it can’t appeal to a greater authority for redress. Apple has brazenly, in broad daylight, stormed into the Bank of Facebook, looted its most precious resource, and, camouflaged under the noble cause of giving privacy controls to the consumer, fled the scene.

This is the odious specter of ATT: it’s an obvious commercial land grab dressed up as a moral crusade, and it will ultimately subvert the open web and the freemium business model. ATT doesn’t provide real consumer choice, and Apple has clearly privileged its own ad network with this new privacy policy in very obvious ways. And Apple has engineered all of this while being cheered on by parties that ape Apple’s commercial slogan regarding the righteousness of first-party data for ads targeting. Case studies will be written in decades to come about Apple’s astute attack on Facebook via an esoteric advertising identifier. If anything is clear from the (protracted) rollout of ATT, it is that Apple’s PR department deserves a pay raise.

Eric Benjamin Seufert

If there was any question about Apple’s true motives, the company recently hired a former product manager for ad targeting at Facebook (and then promptly fired him following a petition from its employees). In other words, Apple is perfectly comfortable tracking its users and selling ads against this targeted data, but is preventing others from doing the same, justifying anticompetitive practices with tenuous privacy promises…

In parallel, Apple has built up its own ad system on the iPhone, which records, tracks and targets users and serves them ads, but does this on the device itself rather than on the cloud, and only its own apps and services. Apple tracks lots of different aspects of your behaviour and uses that data to put you into anonymised interest-based cohorts and serve you ads that are targeted to your interests, in the App Store, Stocks and News apps. You can read Apple’s description of that here – Apple is tracking a lot of user data, but nothing leaves your phone. Your phone is tracking you, but it doesn’t tell anyone anything.

This is conceptually pretty similar to Google’s proposed FLoC, in which your Chrome web browser uses the web pages you visit to put you into anonymised interest-based cohorts without your browsing history itself leaving your device. Publishers (and hence advertisers) can ask Chrome for a cohort and serve you an appropriate ad rather than tracking and targeting you yourself. Your browser is tracking you, but it doesn’t tell anyone anything – except for that anonymous cohort.

Benedict Evans

A similar dynamic is happening in parallel with FLoC, Google’s proposal for a new tracking standard in browsers: most experts are harshly criticizing Google, even though the system is similar to Apple’s device-based tracking on the iPhone, while Apple gets constant praise for advancing user privacy. There is a lot of bias in how these companies are treated in the media, rarely acknowledging that Apple is just as interested in profits and stock market gains as any other tech giant.