It’s been a big day in privacy land for Apple, but among a flurry of privacy-related announcements from the Cupertino-based company, the juiciest was perhaps a speech by CEO Tim Cook at CPDP 2021. In the roughly 15-minute opening keynote, Cook took several, savage potshots at a certain social media company that might be gearing up to file an antitrust suit against Apple.
For the majority of the speech, Cook highlights the various things Apple does to protect its users’ personal data, including the “privacy nutrition label” feature in iOS 14. He also spends a significant time pondering whether we as a society, have lost the “freedom to be human” by accepting that if we want to use new technologies, we’ll have to trade away our personal data to do so. Then, toward the end of the keynote, Cook lets loose.
If a business is built on misleading users, on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, then it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform. We should not look away from the bigger picture and a moment of rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms. We can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good engagement. The longer the better, and all with the goal of collecting as much data as possible. Too many are still asking the question “How much can we get away with?” when they need to be asking “What are the consequences?”
What are the consequences of prioritising conspiracy theories and violent incitement simply because of the high rates of engagement? What are the consequences not just tolerating but rewarding content that undermines public trust in life-saving vaccinations? What are the consequences of seeing thousands of users join extremist groups and then perpetuating an algorithm that recommends even more? It is long past time to stop pretending this approach doesn’t come with a cost, of polarisation, of lost trust and yes, of violence.
Tim, it’s OK. We all know you’re trying not to name names, but c’mon. You’re clearly dragging Facebook.
The barbs come less than a day after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg fired his own shots at Apple’s privacy push during yesterday’s earnings call. “Apple has every incentive to use their dominant platform position to interfere with how our apps and other apps work, which they regularly do to preference their own,” Zuckerberg said, possibly referencing Apple’s beef with Epic Games. “Apple may say that they’re doing this to help people, but the moves clearly track their competitive interests.”
Cook clearly had his own thoughts, though they weren’t framed as a direct response to Zuckerberg’s statements. (Still, we kind of know they are.)
“Technology does not need vast troves of personal data, stitched together across dozens of websites and apps, in order to succeed. Advertising existed and thrived for decades without it,” Cook said. “And we’re here today because the path of least resistance is rarely the path of wisdom.”
It’s trite, but both Zuckerberg and Cook have valid points. And while both companies have framed their side as having the moral high ground, Apple and Facebook are both guilty of some shitty, antitrust behaviour. In this case, the issue is that Facebook clearly feels threatened by the privacy nutrition labels. Today, Apple announced that starting in autumn 2021, apps won’t be able to get ad tracking data without user permission — and needless to say, that throws a whole wrench in Facebook’s entire business model.
This isn’t even the first time Cook has responded to Facebook’s very public displeasure with Apple’s new privacy updates. Last month, Facebook took out full-page ads for two days in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, making the case that it was “standing up to Apple” for the little guys by…arguing against data privacy. To which Cook responded with a sassy tweet.
We believe users should have the choice over the data that is being collected about them and how it’s used. Facebook can continue to track users across apps and websites as before, App Tracking Transparency in iOS 14 will just require that they ask for your permission first. pic.twitter.com/UnnAONZ61I
— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) December 17, 2020
According to Cook’s speech today, ethical technology ought to be the kind that “helps you sleep, not keeps you up” and “gives you space to create, or draw, or write or learn, not refresh just one more time.” He went on to blatantly plug the Apple Watch when describing tech that “fades away in the background” but is there to alert you “when your heart rate spikes or helps you when you’ve had a nasty fall.” It’s a noble thought, even as millions of us destroy our brains every night, doomscrolling through Twitter on our iPhones.
Is there the aroma of hypocrisy as Zuckerberg and Cook fling thinly (and sometimes not-so-thinly) disguised insults at each other? Hell yes. Is it also incredibly entertaining to watch? Hyup. Please, pass the popcorn.