Facebook-backed report calls Apple privacy features anticompetitive

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App Tracking Transparency is iOS 14.5's controversial new privacy-related feature.
Is Apple weaponizing privacy to increase its advantage?
Screenshot: Apple

Facebook isn’t backing down in its battle against Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature. And it’s seemingly got a couple of heavy hitter researchers in its corner.

In a Facebook-funded paper published Wednesday, Feng Zhu, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, and D. Daniel Sokol, a professor of law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, take issue with Apple’s new privacy features — referring to them as “an anticompetitive strategy disguised as a privacy-protecting measure.”

In a summary, the researchers write:

“Apple’s iOS 14 update represents an anti-competitive strategy disguised as a privacy-protecting measure. Apple now prohibits non-Apple apps from using information essential to providing relevant, personalized advertising, without explicit user opt-in. And users may opt-in only after they are shown an ominous and misleading prompt about ‘tracking,’ one that Apple’s own apps and services need not display, because consumers are automatically “opted in” to Apple’s own tracking. Apple’s policy will have the pernicious effects of enhancing the dominance of iOS among mobile operating systems (“OSs”) and the dominance of its own apps and services within the iOS ecosystem, while reducing consumer choice and devastating the free-app ecosystem.”

The argument against Apple

They have a few specific issues with what Apple is doing. For example, they point to Apple’s description of tracking, which it applies to third-party apps engaging in data usage. However, Apple does not apply this to its own apps and services. That’s despite the fact that it also gathers user data for targeted ads. Because of this definitional sleight of hand, Cupertino doesn’t explicitly have to ask users if they agree to be tracked by Apple.

The researchers additionally argue that Apple favors its own apps and that, by charging an App Store commission, makes third-party apps more expensive than its rival software. This makes it “difficult for third-party apps that will be unable to migrate to the paid model to sustain their businesses.”

It’s an interesting paper, which you can read in full here, although few of the arguments are totally new. Facebook is in a tough position with features like App Tracking Transparency. It’s hard for the company to muster much public sympathy for its cause. Especially since Apple can just use the “privacy” word to get people on its side. But there’s definitely a part of what Apple is doing that’s questionable. Specifically, bolstering its own ad business while simultaneously cutting the legs out from under rivals isn’t great optics.

What do you think of the Facebooks versus Apple battle? Let us know your thoughts below.