What’s Behind the Apple-Facebook Feud?

By Shira Ovide

The fight between the two tech giants might remodel the internet as we know it.

CreditCredit...By Brenna Murphy
Shira Ovide

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Starting on Monday, people with iPhones will begin to see pop-up messages on their screens asking whether they will permit companies to follow them from app to app.

Currently, Facebook and companies like it track the ways people use their phones, picking up bits of information such as how often they open their yoga app and what they buy at Target. Facebook then uses that information to help companies target their ads.

Apple says that it wants people to have a choice about participating in this information-harvesting system. Facebook says these ads help make the internet free for all. These two companies have incompatible views of the future of digital life, and they really don’t like each other, as my colleagues Mike Isaac and Jack Nicas detailed.

Jack talked to me about why we should pay attention to a fight between two tech giants, and which company is right. Spoiler alert: They’re both a little right, and a little gross.

Shira: What does this new iPhone feature do, and why is Facebook so mad about it?

Jack: With the latest iPhone software update, companies and advertisers must ask explicit permission — in the form of yes-or-no messages that pop up on the screen — to track people from one app to another.

Many app companies, including Facebook, have predicted that large numbers of people will say no. And that means companies that rely on showing people online ads may have less data to fine tune the ads based on our activity and interests.

Why should people care about this long-running beef between Apple and Facebook?

The winner could decide the shape of the consumer internet going forward. Apple’s view is that people should pay a premium, often to Apple, to have a private, safe experience in digital spaces. Facebook’s position is that the internet should remain open and free, and that advertisers have made that possible.

So who’s right: Apple or Facebook?

Each company has a point, and each one is also hypocritical.

Facebook is right that billions of people have been able to get access to social networks, email, news and entertainment because they’re paid for by ads. The company’s message is that this system needs data on us to advertise effectively and efficiently.

And Apple is right that digital advertising largely operates without people’s true consent or knowledge.

Apple’s message seems simpler.

That’s true. Apple’s view is that it’s simply giving people a choice of whether to be tracked across apps or not. Facebook’s argument to the public is more complex — that they have to be tracked for the internet to work, and that people don’t know what’s good for them.

Wait, let’s go back to the hypocrisy part.

Facebook is worried about its own profits being hurt by Apple’s new feature. It has mostly focused, though, on making the smaller businesses that advertise on Facebook the face of its opposition to Apple’s app-tracking feature. Yes, smaller companies could be hurt, but it’s fair to ask whether my local pizzeria needs to know what I’m doing on a fitness app to effectively advertise to me.

And Apple won’t admit that what it’s doing is great for the company, not just iPhone owners. It’s good marketing to be able to say that iPhones are the place for privacy. Apple also says that targeted digital advertising is dangerous, but it gets billions of dollars each year from Google, the biggest targeted ad company.

Is it possible that this iPhone app-tracking feature won’t be a big deal?

To be honest, yes. It’s not easy to predict the impact of this iPhone change or whether companies will counter it with different information-gathering methods. There’s a chance that lots of people say no to app tracking when iPhones offer the choice, but the advertising industry keeps chugging along.

Tip of the Week

Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, is here to guide us through new capabilities for Siri that are also part of the updated iPhone software:

In my latest column, I dived into some of the most notable new features in Apple’s iOS 14.5, the software update for iPhones and iPads that Apple plans to release on Monday. (Look for the update in the Settings app and the “Software Update” menu.)

But there’s lots of other new goodies in the updated software focused on Siri, Apple’s voice assistant.

For one, you can now ask Siri to call your emergency contact. To set someone as an emergency contact, open the Health app, tap on your picture and select Medical ID. In this menu, you can add an emergency contact from your address book. Now when you say, “Hey Siri, call my emergency contact,” it will ring the phone of that person.

Also, for fans of Apple Maps — I know there are some of you out there — you can now report a road accident that will pop up for other Maps users by saying, “Hey Siri, there’s a crash up ahead.”

  • Internet slander is big business: My colleagues Aaron Krolik and Kashmir Hill found that people running websites that smear people’s reputations online are often also the same people selling services to delete those lies. Follow along as they unravel the slander industry.

  • Silencing criticism of India’s pandemic management: India again ordered internet companies to block some posts that were critical of the government, this time over its handling of the deadly coronavirus surge in the country. My colleagues Karan Deep Singh and Paul Mozur reported that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are faced with an unappealing choice of silencing people or defying the government.

  • Modern life with less damage to the planet: Tim Heffernan at Wirecutter, The Times’s product recommendation site, has tips on more environmentally conscious online shopping, including ordering several items at once and choosing slower delivery when possible.

    And in our Opinion section, the journalist Damon Beres writes that electronic “devices must be repairable by all and kept compatible with software updates for as long as possible.”

Peregrine falcons are basically avian Terminators. You can watch a live online video feed of a pair of these endangered birds in their nest on a bridge in New York.

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