The privacy wars…

Apple and facebook: the privacy war hots-up

WOULD YOU pay to keep using facebook and instagram or would you let them continue to monitor your online activity to keep using the platforms without charge?

That’s the stark choice being mooted after users found a popup window suggesting the possibility that facebook and instagram might start charging users of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 14.5, who refuse to let the social media corporation harvest their personal information to use for advertising.

The message

The message claims that by allowing facebook and Instagram to track your web activity and compile profiles on you, it allows the platform to “support businesses that rely on ads to reach customers”.

A second message reads that by allowing facebook to monitor you, it will help keep the platforms free of charge.

The threat

Seems facebook, which owns instagram, sees Apple’s new opt-in to allow businesses to track your online activity as an existential threat. Tracking users cross the websites they visit and their other online activity compiles profiles on individuals which are used to target advertising at them. It is the basis of facebook’s business model.

Zuckenberg has been jumping up and down about Apple’s move ever since Apple announced that as of iOS 14.5, its operating system for mobile devices, apps must ask a user for permission to track them from app to app.

It is another move in Apple positioning itself as a champion of online privacy. Their computer operating system includes a privacy shield, that’s the little shield icon next to your search field input at the top of the page. It blocks trackers and compiles a report identifying the trackers and the websites they have tried to track you across.

Apple’s Safari bowser blocks website trackers and reports on those it has blocked.

If facebook carries through with its implied threat to iOS users, it leaves them with three options:

  • allow facebook and instagram to continue tracking you across your online activity in exchange for free use of the platforms
  • refuse their tracking and pay to use the platforms
  • refuse to allow tracking and decline their demand for payment and quit the platforms.

Scare tactic or a real threat?

How serious is facebook in threatening to charge users who prefer to maintain their online privacy? We don’t know yet. Are they serious or is it a gambit, a scare tactic, in its ongoing privacy war with Apple?

If a significant number of people say no to facebook and instagram tracking and are forced off the platforms, the corporations stand to lose them to other social media platforms like Reddit, MeWe and WT.Social.

We know users will quit facebook because they did it when facebook’s Cambridge Analytica personal data harvesting scandal was exposed. We saw it repeated when facebook, without warning, stopped Australian users posting or accessing news (and here) when the government threatened new legislation, the News Media Bargaining Code, which would have forced the platform to pay news organisations for distributing their work. Facebook’s negotiating their own arrangement with the news organisations to avoid introduction of the legislation was sees as a backdown, however the suspicion exists that it was a successful fallback tactic by facebook which negotiated an outcome they found acceptable and prevented government interference.

There is an equity issue in the possibility that facebook could charge users. That is about whether users in lesser-developed countries who opt to keep their personal data personal would stay with the platform if they have to pay. The same goes for lower-income people in more-developed countries like Australia.

Is facebook’s statement intimidation?

One reading of what facebook and instagram propose is that they are intimidating their iOS users.

Platform users rely on facebook for contact with family and friends and for getting their organisation’s messages out. Facebook’s strength, its massive user base, grew to the scale it is today by having first-starter advantage in social media and by the phenomenon of preferential attachment by which people link to platforms their friends and family use and in doing so build the user base of those platforms. It is how the big get bigger.

What would Apple do?

It is too early to see where facebook’s raising the possibility of charging iOS tracking-opt-out users will go. Despite facebook’s hold as a platform for people’s social networks, there is evidence that people are prepared to walk when the corporation’s actions become too odious.

With facebook’s personal information harvesting business model and behaviour having already created reputation problems for it, and Apple’s initiatives positioning it as a protector of online privacy, we have not seen the last skirmish between these corporate monoliths.

The question that will follow facebook imposting its harvest-pay-or leave model is this: what will Apple do?

One thing is for sure. Apple will do something, and it will be unexpected.

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Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.