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App Tracking Transparency is the fifth thing listed in Apple's releases notes for iOS 14.5, which started rolling out on Monday, but it's the most consequential software update in a long time. The privacy wars are on, and they just keep getting hotter.
- Apps are now being forced to ask users to allow them to "track your activity across other companies' apps and websites." There are two options: "Ask App not to Track" or "Allow."
- You'll be surprised how many apps ask. Facebook and others were obvious culprits, but The Wall Street Journal, ESPN, Venmo, Mint, Sling and others all threw the pop-up as soon as I opened them.
- Users can short-circuit the process in their privacy settings, and prevent apps from even asking to track them. But by default, every app will ask permission.
Nobody knows exactly how this will shake out, but most people seem to think that the default answer will be "Ask App not to Track." A lot of ad-supported businesses have been fighting this change for months, and they sure hate it now that it's here. (It's gotten bad enough that Facebook and publishers are on the same side, which … never happens.)
- A group of companies is suing Apple for antitrust violations related to the change, saying developers could lose up to 60% of revenue as a result.
- And if that does happen, Apple's apparently ready to take advantage. It's reportedly getting ready to grow its ad business, starting by adding more sponsored space to the App Store.
- Some companies are looking for ways around Apple's rules, and Apple has promised to shut them all down. And in truth, the advertisers will always find a way to keep tracking people. FLoCs, anyone?
The battle lines are etched in stone at this point. Apple says it's making a stand for privacy, and that it's simply giving users a choice; Facebook and other critics say Apple's just further exploiting developers and users for its own gain. Mark Zuckerberg calls Apple "one of our biggest competitors"; Tim Cook tells Zuckerberg the right thing to do is delete all your third-party user data.
One thing seems certain: That the next phase of app development will be designed to keep users inside of an app for as long as possible. If all Facebook can collect is first-party data, then you better believe it's going to find as many creative ways to keep you in the Facebook app as it possibly can.
- That's certainly part of the reason it's building an in-app podcast player, why it's adding a Spotify player to the app, and why it continues to resolutely steal every feature of every app it can find.
- Facebook and others built big businesses on being portals to everything, because users and data always flowed back. Now I suspect we'll see their walls get higher, their platforms more all-consuming, and their reasons to let you leave start to dwindle.
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