Today Apple CEO Tim Cook again weighed in on Facebook’s advertising business model in the wake of revelations that the social media giant had shared personal data on millions of users with the British data firm Cambridge Analytica.
During a taping of her MSNBC Revolution TV show, Recode’s Kara Swisher today asked Cook what he would do if he were Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. His answer: “I wouldn’t be in this situation.”
Cook has been talking for years about how his company doesn’t make a business out of harvesting its users’ personal information.
Speaking at an EPIC privacy event in 2015, he said, “You might like these so-called free services, but we don’t think they are worth having your email or your search history or now even your family photos data mined and sold off for God knows what advertising purpose, and we think someday customers will see this for what it is.”
(Note that these statements may have been pointed at Google more than Facebook, but Facebook can’t help but be implicated.)
Whether Or Not To Monetize The Customer
Apple has been true to Cook’s words. It deserves credit for not following the rest of the world into the personal data monetization game. It could easily have done so. As smartphone sales have cooled off worldwide, Apple has focused in recent years on monetizing its massive user base (more than a billion iOS devices in use in the wild).
“The truth is, we could make a ton of money if we monetized our customer,” Cook said today. “If our customer was our product, we could make a ton of money. We’ve elected not to do that.”
Still, Apple isn’t completely innocent. By hosting Facebook’s app in the App Store, Apple is enabling Facebook’s business model.
Apps are the single thing that made the iPhone far more than a cell phone with a touch screen, and the Facebook app is the most widely used app on the iPhone. Last year, the Facebook app reached an 80% penetration among app users, according to Comscore, the highest of any app. The Facebook app icon is on almost half of all mobile device home screens. Scrolling Facebook is one of the main things people do with their iPhones. For some people, it’s pretty much all they do with their iPhones.
In light of that, one of Cook’s quotes today sounds particularly interesting: “We curate, we don’t want porn on our app store. We don’t want hate speech on our app store. We’re looking at every app in detail. Is it doing what it is saying it is doing?”
How Apple Will Respond
Is the Facebook app really doing what it says it’s doing?
In March 2018, many people would say no. The company insists that it’s a wonderful free social network on a mission to connect the people of the world. But behind the curtain, Facebook is a wildly profitable data harvesting and ad targeting operation. As of March 17, when the scandal broke and the curtain was pulled back, users are much more aware of this dynamic than they used to be.
The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal has reminded people of what Facebook’s business really is, and, crucially, that they could be not only used by it, but harmed by it.
You’re not going to see Apple eject the Facebook app from its store. But Apple could require Facebook to be more clear, as you download the app, about its plans to harvest your personal data. It could require a more in-your-face warning label.
But it’s pretty easy not to see them. The most noticeable thing on the Join Facebook screen is the big blue “Get Started” button just below the fine print. I’d wager most people just click right through to the next screen (which asks for your phone number). No notification windows. No warnings.
You’ll find the same issues when downloading the Facebook app to an Android phone. But Apple is arguably in a better position than Google to bring about change, because it can exert control over so many more (iOS) devices. Apple has a chance to be a leader on what’s allowable and what’s not.
Requiring a bigger warning label for data harvesting apps wouldn’t be out of character for Apple. It was Apple that established the notion that app makers must get explicit permission–via an opt-in notification–from users in order to capture microphone signal or location data from their phone.
Maybe it’s time to take that kind of approach to warning users about collecting their data.