Over the last year, Apple CEO Tim Cook has made it a point to call out tech companies for indiscriminately collecting data on users and disregarding concerns about privacy. But one issue with his criticism is that Apple gets paid a boatload of money from Google for making its search engine the default on its devices. In a new interview, Cook finally addressed that issue.
Cook repeated a variation of the line when asked about privacy by Axios. He explained that “this is not a matter of privacy versus profits, or privacy versus technical innovation—that’s a false choice.” What little data Apple does collect about device usage is anonymized. Most sensitive data is encrypted so that Apple only has limited information like the time of day you sent a text message but none of the contents of the message.
Apple has used its policy as a stick to beat on ad-driven companies like Facebook. “This is surveillance and these stockpiles of data serve only to make rich the companies that collect them,” Cook told the audience at an EU privacy conference in October. He added, “This should make us uncomfortable.” So it should probably make Cook a little uncomfortable to talk about the fact that Apple gets paid by Google to make its search engine the default on iOS devices. But when asked about it by Axios, he was relatively sanguine. Here’s his full comment on the matter:
One: I think their [Google’s] search engine is the best and that’s very important. But two: Look at what we’ve done with the controls we’ve built in. We have private web browsing. We have an intelligent tracker prevention. What we’ve tried to do is come up with ways to help our users through their course of the day. It is not a perfect thing. I’d be the very first person to say that. But it goes a long way to helping.
Private web browsing is fine and the intelligent tracker prevention in Safari helps users control whether cookies follow them around the web, although Google quickly found a workaround after the feature was announced. But Tim’s argument that Google is the browser of choice is difficult to argue with. Apple could set the default search engine to one that’s focused on privacy like DuckDuckGo, but that would be like selling a Bentley with fake leather seats—or at least that’s what Cook seems to be arguing. He did not specifically address the annual revenue Apple takes in from Google, but financial analysts estimate it lies between $US3 ($4) billion and $US9 ($12) billion.
DuckDuckGo could never pay Apple that kind of cash, and with growth in device sales slowing down, Apple is increasingly relying on services to create new opportunities. In the fourth quarter of 2018, Apple had $US62.9 ($86) billion in revenue, $US10 ($14) billion of which came from services like iCloud, Apple Music, and that lucrative deal with Google.
Should Apple be shamed over its hypocritical willingness to reap profits from a company it considers to be unethical? Sure. But this is just how Apple rolls. It makes some great decisions and some great devices. It also uses terrible labour practices for assembling those devices, opposes the right to repair, and contributes to untold amounts of e-waste. For now, it’s just lucky that so many other companies are so clearly much more evil on the surface. As for tech being evil, in general, Cook said, “Technology is good or evil, as you put it, depending upon the creator and many times it’s not that the creator set out to do evil it’s that there wasn’t an anticipation of these negative things that it could be used for.”