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Apple Can Afford To Mess With Annoying, Snoopy Ads–And At WWDC, It Did

Taking a consumer-first approach to intrusive advertising is easier when your profits come from selling hardware, not monetizing users.

Apple Can Afford To Mess With Annoying, Snoopy Ads–And At WWDC, It Did
[Source Photos: Flickr user jaғar ѕнaмeeм (billboard); Unsplash User Marcin Nowak (apple)]

Internet ads, you’re on notice.

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That was one of the more subtle messages coming out of Apple’s annual WWDC keynote this year. The company had plenty of eye-catching announcements, like the new HomePod speaker and a space gray iMac Pro, but buried among the myriad capabilities of the upcoming iOS 11 and MacOS High Sierra updates are a collection of features aimed at protecting users’ privacy by targeting annoying web ads.

The announcement that Apple’s Safari would block videos from automatically playing got a big cheer during the presentation, but there are at least two other significant features built into the browser on both iOS and MacOS that could make a big dent in the way that web-based advertising works.

The first are some adjustments to Safari’s Reader mode, which debuted way back in 2010. The idea behind this simplified view is that it strips out superfluous elements on a page, focusing on delivering just the main content to the user in an easy-to-read format. But that streamlined mode also strips out ads, which has caused some content providers to object that Apple was taking aim at their sites’ livelihood.

Reader has mostly languished over the past few years, but in iOS 11 and MacOS High Sierra it’s back in the spotlight, and it’s gotten a wide-reaching upgrade. You can now set Reader as the default mode for “every web article that supports it,” which will potentially turn a lot of articles into something that looks more like a PDF than graphics-laden web page. (Previously, you had to first load the site and then toggle into Reader, which at least gave ads a chance to show up before you bid them adieu.)

That new feature has a more granular option, too, letting you choose only specific sites that will load by default in Reader mode. So if you get annoyed at a particular site’s behavior, you can instruct it to never again present offending ads to your eyes. Apple’s new autoplay-blocking feature has a similar per-site option.

The company also announced a feature in Safari that will use its much touted machine-learning technology to block ads from following you around the web–you know, that annoying phenomenon where you buy a pair of shoes and then see ads for those exact shoes pop up on half a dozen sites. The feature promises to block the cross-site tracking tools that ad companies use to serve up those repetitive ads, and thus protect your privacy when you shop online.

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Nothing To Lose

None of this should come as any surprise. Privacy has been one of Apple’s core messages over the last few years, especially as it’s positioned itself in stark contrast against major rivals like Google and Amazon. While the new anti-tracking feature may not have a direct impact on those companies’ bottom lines–the fine details of Apple’s implementation of its privacy protection feature seems to differentiate between first-party sites that you visit and third-party tracking networks–Apple is still drawing a strategic line in the sand.

Companies such as Google, Amazon, and even Facebook want to know everything about you, and then use that information to present you with ads for products that you might like to buy–good or bad, those are their business models. Apple, on the other hand, is focused on selling hardware to consumers, and it’s less interested in monetizing where you go and what you do afterwards.

So you don’t have to reach far in order to see these new technologies as shots at Google and Amazon. (Facebook is also a major ad player, but less directly competitive with Apple.) Those companies have their own tortuous relationship with privacy and advertising, which can sometimes lead to odd and apparently self-serving announcements. For example, at its I/O conference last month, Google announced that an upcoming version of its web browser, Chrome, would incorporate an ad blocker that specifically targets “annoying, intrusive ads.” Naturally, as many were quick to point out, that probably wouldn’t include much in the way of ads from Google itself.

Apple, for its part, doesn’t have a horse in the ad race. Its only attempt at advertising, the late iAd, never really took off–and involved with mobile apps rather than web ones. So the company can afford to take shots at internet ads without in the least threatening its own business model.

In fact, these new features work in favor of Apple’s own image by playing up the company as the bastion of privacy and security. In the same way that Apple has been an ardent advocate of strong encryption, has made a point of doing on-device processing of personal information, and touts advanced anonymizing techniques like differential privacy, positioning itself as the enemy of invasive advertising has little downside for the company. More important, it arguably has a whole lot of upside for its customers.