Apple’s user privacy policy is better for its ad business than for its users

Image credit: Denys Prykhodov |

Apple has been active to help users protect their privacy against third-party apps that track them. Users have been keen to take advantage of this to stop app tracking, and many companies have lost significant ad revenue in the Apple ecosystem as a result. At the same time, however, it’s been great for Apple, which has significantly increased its own ad business. Which raises a question: Is Apple really interested in user privacy, or is this really just a way to tighten control of user data to strengthen its ecosystem?

The Financial Times reported that Apple’s advertising business more than tripled its market share in the six months after it introduced privacy changes. Companies like Facebook, Google, Snap, Yahoo and Twitter now have much less visibility of a user’s data in Apple’s ecosystem, which makes Apple’s offering more attractive.

But while these other companies can no longer offer detailed targeting information to advertisers, Apple can –and does – offer detailed information to anyone signing up for its ads service. It is also worth remembering that Apple doesn’t need to ‘see’ users data – once Apple has it, it can build transcendent targeting services on it.

The Financial Times also quoted a mobile advertising executive (who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation) who said Apple had “given itself a free pass” because it is “not subject to the same policy that every other ad network is.”

Perhaps Apple has good intentions for its new privacy model, but as we know, good intentions don’t guarantee good outcomes. When it comes to longer-term solutions for personal data and privacy, it’s unworkable to have a situation where some companies attain dominant market share and then try to behave like regulators, while at the same time continuing to conduct business by their own rules. It is a similar delusion to Enlightened Absolutism, in which enlightened monarchs distinguished themselves from ordinary rulers by claiming to rule for their subjects’ well-being.

Apple is actively marketing its privacy features to get people to believe they exist to protect them. And of course, the privacy features are nice for users, but it’s misleading to pretend that Apple isn’t getting something out of the deal – not just more ad revenue, but also more and more user data, particularly sensitive health data from its Apple Health service, which is not controlled by the users, but by Apple.

I wrote earlier that Apple and Google are behaving like parents that want to protect their kids, but have a hard time allowing kids their own control. We can say it is positive Apple has raised privacy to a more important role in mobile services. But that doesn’t mean they’re offering solutions that are really in the best interest of consumers. It just reminds us that we need real solutions that not only protect privacy, but give real control to users so that they get real value from data for themselves, and that the data doesn’t go to a third party that claims to protect them.

We have also seen it is hard to improve the situation just by regulating it more. Regulation easily leads to a situation where users feel services are more complex to use, and all the privacy warnings and consent boxes are just annoying. We can easily conclude that the only long-term solution is embracing models where users own their data and can utilize it easily so that they get more value from it, creating new opportunities for them.

But of course, it is not easy to transition to this model when it is against the interest of many current data platforms. It may prove especially difficult for Apple to do this if it means giving up their current position and give real control to users.

If this sounds like an impossible transition, or one that all businesses oppose, think again. Data is now controlled by a handful of companies, mostly the Big Tech giants. That means there are many businesses that could win with changes to the data business. For example, many consumers, advertising and online services could be winners with a user-centric model and a more open ecosystem, because  that would remove the bottleneck of the data giants controlling interaction with consumers.

Let’s not kid ourselves that ticking boxes to accept or reject cookies or Apple’s privacy controls will fundamentally improve privacy and give more control to users. They are indicators that the current data model is not sustainable and new models are needed – but they are just steps toward fundamentally new data models. User-centric data models will become reality sooner or later, enabling better competition in the open market, and it won’t be only consumers who win – it will also be millions of businesses.

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