Facebook has made the latest move in an unusually public, drawn-out privacy row with Big Tech counterpart Apple.
The social networking site will introduce a push notification explaining the so-called benefits of third-party tracking to counter Apple's forthcoming user privacy prompt.
What's the breaking news?
Apple's imminent iOS 14 update will include an App Transparency Tracking tool, part of which will require app developers to gain permission from users before any third-party tracking tools can get a hold of their data. A push notification sent to users will allow them to block third-party tracking devices if they so choose.
Since this was made public last year, Facebook has been working on a push notification of their own to pre-empt Apple's update. The alert will present the supposed benefits of personalized advertising to users for "additional context". Facebook officials have long contested that the privacy/advertising dilemma is in fact a false one:
Apple's new prompt suggests there is a tradeoff between personalized advertising and privacy; when in fact, we can and do provide both. The Apple prompt also provides no context about the benefits of personalized ads
Levy, writing in a blog post that was last updated yesterday, goes on to say that Apple provides "no context about the benefits of personalized ads" in its plans and that agreeing to 'opt-in' won't result in new types of data being collected. Other Facebook officials have expressed concerns the change will discourage people from opting-in en masse.
Big Tech's big fight
Apple and Facebook have been at each other's throats for months now, and it's all been about third-party tracking.
When Apple originally floated the idea for an 'opt-in' tool, Facebook claimed such a notification would cut the revenue made by their ad networks by 50%. Since December, they have framed Apple's action as a threat to the small businesses that use Facebook's personalized ad tracking tools to attract customers, portraying themselves as defenders of such businesses.
The PR war intensified to the extent that Facebook was taking out full-page ads in print newspapers to get their point across to the public.
The social network has also gone on the offensive, claiming that Apple is simply pretending to care about the privacy of their users to force advertisers to make the switch to their advertising platform. They have further accused Apple of trying to push for digital content producers and apps away from adverts and towards subscriptions (Apple takes a 30% cut of all app store subscription fees).
Have Facebook got a point?
It's true that without third-party tracking, it will be much more difficult to run hyper-targeted advertising operations. However, whether this will actually affect small businesses as Facebook claim, or the social network itself, is an open question.
Privacy campaigners have dubbed the social network's campaign against Apple as 'laughable' and questioned the sincerity of Facebook 'standing up' for small businesses:
A number of studies have shown that most of the money made from targeted advertising does not reach the creators of the content and the app developers and the content they host. Instead, the majority of any extra money earned by targeted ads ends up in the pockets of these data brokers
Facebook, along with Google, have a near-complete monopoly on online advertising. They make billions of dollars a year from the current setup, and it forces small companies unable to compete with their market into accepting the situation on Big Tech's terms. If you look at the advertising landscape with a wide lens like this, it's quite clear to see how this isn't good for small businesses, no matter how many generate income from Facebook.
On the publisher side, The Association of National Advertisers estimates that publishers only take around 30 – 40 cents home for every dollar they spend on advertising. The Guardian complained about this as early as 2016, when then-Chief Revenue Officer Hamish Nicklin revealed only about 30p was making it back to the paper for every pound spent on their advertising inventories.
Regardless of all this, whether the move is good for small businesses or publishers is arguably a secondary concern when weighed against the privacy of millions upon millions of users. Even if Facebook is genuinely concerned – and correct – about the fate of small businesses relying on third-party tracking, their worries don't necessarily trump competing concerns.
Playing with fire
That's how Stephanie Hare, whose book Technology Ethics will be published in just a few weeks, described both company's respective offerings to this very public PR war. She thinks Facebook's attempt to "play the victim" could backfire, whereas Apple may have inadvertently turned the spotlight on themselves and their own market aspirations.
All in all, it can only be a good thing that Apple is planning on giving people more power over what happens to their data. But whether it will come back to bite them, despite being a well-founded prediction, remains to be seen.