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Apple vs. Facebook: The trillion-dollar privacy wars

Two of the world's largest companies are squaring up.

Apple vs. Facebook: The trillion-dollar privacy wars

Apple has used Facebook as an example for the tracking notifications that will soon appear on iPhones.

Image: Apple

There's a privacy battle brewing between Apple and Facebook, and their CEOs are both ready for it. After weeks of thinly veiled shots, the gloves are now off.

Tim Cook tore into Facebook during a speech he gave this week at the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference.

  • "We can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good engagement," he said. A company like that, he said, "does not deserve our praise, it deserves reform."
  • Lest you say, "well, maybe he didn't mean Facebook!" I present to you the example from Apple's Privacy Day blog post, showing the tracking notifications Apple's planning to start showing. It's not your standard fake-app-with-a-silly-name, it's Facebook.
  • Apple's case against Facebook, grossly oversimplified, goes like this: Facebook collects a massive trove of data far greater than people understand or Facebook requires, and uses it to invade and monetize every part of users' lives. That is a bad thing, and as a device and OS maker Apple is correctly positioned to solve it.

Facebook is thinking about filing an antitrust lawsuit against Apple, The Information reported. "We believe Apple is behaving anti-competitively by using their control of the App Store to benefit their bottom line at the expense of app developers and small businesses," the company said.

  • Mark Zuckerberg said essentially the same on Facebook's earnings call this week: "Apple has every incentive to use their dominant platform position to interfere with how our apps and other apps work, which they regularly do to preference their own."
  • Facebook's case against Apple, again grossly oversimplified, is this: Apple sets arbitrary rules for developers, enforces them haphazardly, and doesn't require its own apps to follow the same rules. Apple doesn't care about your privacy, it just cares about getting as much money as possible out of Facebook and Spotify and Fortnite.

As for the rest of the tech industry? Most people seem to see truth on both sides. But I've talked to a number of people in the last few days who see it roughly like Zuckerberg does: That Apple's pro-privacy stance is really a means to an end, to create a world in which it has something like unilateral access to the billion-plus people using its devices.

If two of the world's largest companies fighting publicly (and maybe in court) about privacy isn't enough to force change in the industry, I don't know what is. Both sides are dug in here, both morally and because their business models won't let them change. I'm not sure it'll ever come to this, but it's a fascinating question: Who blinks first? Does Facebook need the iPhone more than the iPhone needs Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram?

This article first appeared in Source Code, our daily newsletter. Sign up here.

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