Opinion | Facebook’s Tone-Deaf Attack on Apple

By Kara Swisher

The company declared in newspaper ads that it was “standing up to Apple.” It’s a desperate ploy that’s unlikely to work.

Kara Swisher

Ms. Swisher covers technology and is a contributing opinion writer.

Credit...Erin Scott/Reuters

If there’s anything that Facebook has learned from its many years of cozying up to the Trump administration, it’s figuring out that shamelessness works.

That is the only explanation I can come up with after seeing the social networking giant’s righteous ad campaign this week against Apple.

Casting itself as the protector of small businesses in full-page ads in — irony alert — big newspapers, Facebook is criticizing Apple for planning to give users of its popular devices like the iPhone more control over the data they share with third-party apps.

Starting next year, Apple will ask mobile users to “opt in” to accept third-party tracking of their digital activity (right now, the system defaults to tracking and requires users to “opt out” if they don’t want to be followed). Facebook relies on tracking to target ads at customers.

Facebook declared in the newspaper ads that it was “standing up to Apple” and warned that such a change will be the ruin of small businesses.

More like the ruin of Facebook. The company is terrified that giving users single-click power to control their own information will force people to realize just how loud is the data-sucking sound coming from Facebook’s app.

Let’s be clear: Apple is no saint. While looking and acting like a defender of user privacy has long been a core tenet of the company, its bottom line does not depend on advertising, and ridding the world of intrusive marketing by kneecapping Facebook is good for its business.

In fact, Apple has its own sins to answer for. Many people claim it has too much control over the third-party developers that are dependent on Apple’s mobile app ecosystem, an issue that has gained a lot of regulatory and legal attention of late. Apple takes a 30 percent cut of many of the transactions that take place in the App Store, and many companies say that fee is unreasonably high; some say it is predatory.

The regulatory and legal questions around Apple’s practices are behind Facebook’s strategy that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In its attack ads on Apple, Facebook added that it would help antitrust regulators and others — like the Fortnite parent company Epic Games — on the App Store issue.

The fight is deliciously entertaining, but it is not the first time the companies have clashed. Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, can barely suppress a sneer when he talks about the leadership of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive. Facebook executives have long derided what they consider Apple management’s highhanded and sanctimonious tone.

“He’s a prig,” a top Facebook executive said to me about Mr. Cook several years ago. This followed an interview I did with Mr. Cook in which he dissed Mr. Zuckerberg.

“He’s a menace,” an Apple executive said to me about Mr. Zuckerberg after the Facebook chief executive tried to take aim at Apple for being elitist and too pricey at a congressional hearing.

Whatever, boys. But the cracks we are seeing this week are the most significant — and could spell trouble for both companies. Apple, pointing out Facebook’s data gluttony, and Facebook, in turn, noting Apple’s hegemony over mobile, make one thing clear: These tech companies have too much power. And no matter how you slice it, they are all in dire need of government regulation.

At least Apple can read the room. It’s beginning to change the rules of the App Store and loosen its grip over developers. I would not be surprised if Apple found a way to make more concessions, hoping to fend off more dangerous antitrust action, by subjecting the App Store to some sort of scheme to level the playing field around fees and more.

Facebook, on the other hand, knows only one move: Exert power through money and influence, a strategy that’s undergirded by Mr. Zuckerberg’s remarkable streak of stubbornness in the face of persistent criticism. It seems impossible for him or the team around him to reflect on why so many people have come to dread the company’s leadership.

Facebook is the master of the slow roll, dragging its feet to take corrective action when it makes mistakes. It delayed for years before finally tackling disinformation on its platform. The company continued untoward cozying up to the Trump administration. I am almost never surprised to see Facebook take the hard line when taking a softer one might do.

This approach most likely has a lot to do with Mr. Zuckerberg’s enormous success at a very young age and the confidence that came with pushing ahead when others doubted him. It does not take a psychologist to understand that he believes might makes right.

And mighty he is. Mr. Zuckerberg has built quite an empire, which rules great stretches of our digital lives — and it seems impregnable. Except, of course, when the world’s most powerful maker of mobile devices decides to add a pop-up to its repertoire, which could change the equation for Facebook instantly.

Several years ago, Mr. Zuckerberg saw such a threat and tried his hardest to introduce his own mobile software interface in 2013, called Facebook Home. It was a flop, one of the few in his career, which might now have bigger reverberations no matter how many indignant newspaper ads Facebook buys.

This brings to mind a famous quote from a different leader laid low, which might now be applied to Mr. Zuckerberg: His kingdom for a phone.