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Watch out, Facebook—Apple’s ad-tracking user protections are still on track

Apple doubles down on its delayed anti-ad-tracking features.

Watch out, Facebook—Apple’s ad-tracking user protections are still on track
[Photo: Kevin Bhagat/Unsplash; rawpixel]
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Back in June, during Apple’s first online-only Worldwide Developers Conference, the majority of the excitement, as usual, surrounded the glossy new features coming to iOS. In this case, the home screen widgets and major Messages improvements were among the big draws. However, Apple, as always, also announced more privacy features coming to its mobile operating systems—including approximate location, camera, and microphone indicators, and a feature known as App Tracking Transparency (ATT), which gives users control over how much they allow apps to track them for advertising purposes.

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While decidedly not as sexy as home screen widgets, Apple’s new privacy feature—specifically ATT—made waves across the industry. ATT is a game-changer when it comes to user privacy protections. It would allow users to opt out of apps tracking them across apps and websites. Such tracking allows apps and ad networks to collect massive amounts of data about user habits—data that many believe is intrusive.

Now, thanks to ATT, an app would need to ask permission from a user to track them across apps and websites on their iPhone before the app could access such data about them. If the user opted out, the app would have no choice but to comply. The ATT system, in other words, gave users as much control over ad tracking as other iOS privacy features—for example, Photos library access—gives users control over what other personal data apps can acquire.

App giants aren’t happy

The ATT controls were praised by everyone from ordinary users to privacy groups. And they were condemned by—you guessed it—app giants such as Facebook, which warned that Apple giving users more control over their privacy in such a way could hit the social media giant’s Audience Network publisher revenue by as much as 50%.

But fast-forward to September 2020. Shortly before the release of iOS 14, Apple announced its ATT system would be delayed. Apple said the delay was to give developers a little more time in implementing the technical changes in their own systems and codebases that ATT required. That delay, naturally, led to unfounded claims Apple was capitulating to the likes of Facebook and Google—and fears that the company might scrap ATT altogether. The delay even led to numerous civil and human rights organizations recently publishing an open letter to Apple condemning the postponement, saying it would “continue to enable other companies’ mass privacy violations.”

In other words, ATT’s introduction and then subsequent delay saw Apple in the unenviable position of having no one happy with it. The big ad-based tech companies such as Facebook weren’t happy that ATT was still on the horizon, and privacy organizations weren’t happy because ATT wasn’t coming fast enough.

Rock. Apple. Hard place.

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The good for those privacy advocates is Apple has now reconfirmed in its own open letter that ATT is still coming early next year—and the extra time Apple is giving developers to implement ATT procedures will ensure the new privacy protections are executed properly. The letter also confirms that, despite fears from privacy advocates, any pressure Apple may have received from its fellow Big Tech brothers has led to no changes to ATT’s protections. Matter of fact, Apple doesn’t hold back in calling out the differences between its own privacy ideology and that of Facebook’s. In the letter, Apple says:

“By contrast, Facebook and others have a very different approach to targeting. Not only do they allow the grouping of users into smaller segments, they use detailed data about online browsing activity to target ads. Facebook executives have made clear their intent is to collect as much data as possible across both first and third party products to develop and monetize detailed profiles of their users, and this disregard for user privacy continues to expand to include more of their products.”

But Apple doesn’t stop there. If anyone thought ATT’s delay might mean Apple was going soft on the digital ad industry as a whole—and succumbing to their argument that the collection of as much user data as possible is needed for the ad industry to thrive—Apple doubles down on its stance, saying that line of thinking is both historically and factually incorrect:

“Advertising that respects privacy is not only possible, it was the standard until the growth of the Internet. Some companies that would prefer ATT is never implemented have said that this policy uniquely burdens small businesses by restricting advertising options, but in fact, the current data arms race primarily benefits big businesses with big data sets. Privacy-focused ad networks were the universal standard in advertising before the practice of unfettered data collection began over the last decade or so. Our hope is that increasing user demands for privacy and security, as well as changes like ATT, will make these privacy-forward advertising standards robust once more.”

So, sure: It’s disappointing that we’ll have to wait a little longer than originally planned for ATT to roll out. But as Apple’s letter published today shows, the company is by no means backtracking on its privacy protections—and the delay is not due to pressure from its peers, but in order to make sure those peers and other, smaller developers can implement the new protections properly—which only serves to better benefit us users in the end.

You can read Apple’s entire App Tracking Transparency (ATT) letter here.