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    Facebook vs. Apple and the fight over our user data and our privacy; New opportunities ahead of us

    June 2021

    It was a grenade lobbed into the tenuous peace between Apple and Facebook – a software update that explicitly asked iPhone users whether an app should be allowed to track their digital movements across the other apps and sites that they use. Apple pitched feature, App Tracing Transparency, as a triumph for privacy. But for Facebook, it was an attack striking a key source of revenue: the personal data of its users.

    Many of the biggest tech firms have long insisted that consumers care more about free services and the privacy they surrender to use them. Companies like Facebook pointed to their own exponential growth and insisted that consumers were voting with their feet.

    Turns out, that was nonsense.

    When offered an actual choice in the new operating system that runs iPhones, Americans are all in on privacy. Just 6% of US daily users of Apple’s latest mobile software are opting to allow companies like Facebook and its many affiliates to hoover up data about them and sell it to advertisers, according to Flurry Analytics. Facebook tracks its users everywhere online because it can sell ads at a higher rate to markets when it has highly detailed personal information, known as targeted advertising. That’s why advertisements on Facebook are often creepily specific – a Google search for jeans might later yield ads for gap jeans in style, fit and colors you like. Facebook and others can inform advertisers how effective the ads are and whether your personal traits will match well with subsequent ads for charcoal grills, Barbie dolls, gardening equipment or specific concert tickets.

    Since last year, Facebook has been carrying on a very public fit over Apple’s new privacy option, arguing that it hurts small businesses. The logic is that without the extensive personal information users provide back to Facebook for dispersal to data brokers and marketers, mom-and-pop shops simply cannot successfully hawk handbags, burger seasoning or plumbing services.

    Of course, and you also should realize, the social network’s objections are really about Facebook ads sales business, which generated an astonishing amount of 25.4 billion USD in the first three months of 2021 alone. Anything, Facebook professes, that threatens its ability to trail users as they browse retail, travel, news and other sites could threaten the company’s ability to offer of its social media sites “free of charge”.

    Early data shows that consumers overwhelmingly want more privacy. Apple’s new operating system for phones forces each app to ask permission to track users across the Internet – a choice that was previously available but difficult to find.

    Almost all users opted out.

    That’s in my opinion significant. But what I think a lot of users reading the headlines perhaps don’t understand is that what this App Tracking Transparency notification does on your iPhone is it limits applications from tracking you across to other applications and across devices. What it does not do is prevent these very same applications, including Facebook, which the big whale in this discussion, from collecting your data with their own application. At the end this massive surveillance empire worth hundreds of billions of dollars. But we, just call it an app.

    And App Tracking Transparency has no bearing on Facebook’s, or any other application’s, ability to continue tracking you, collecting every aspect of your behavior, your activities, your thoughts and feelings. So, yes, it does take a big bite out of some of the things that they currently do, especially as they reach out for this rich diversity of data, which is so important to them. But does it limit their ability to illegitimately convert our lives into data, which they then declare us their private property? Clearly Not!

    Other pp companies including Etsy and Pandora for example try a different approach by reminding their users in mobile pop-ups that their free services are supported by targeted advertising. The Weather Network for example implies that tracking its users helps it saves lives. Twitter and Nextdoor simply want customers to have the most “relevant” ads.

    As we allow these companies to amass this huge scale of human-generated data, we have to understand and realize that we are changing the nature of our society. Because first of all, we are allowing them to create these huge asymmetries of knowledge about people. Instead of this being a golden age of the democratization of knowledge, it’s turned into something very different from what any of us most probably expected. The last 20 years have witnessed, especially the last decade, the wholesale destruction of privacy. and operationally, in my opinion what happens is they get to a point where they know so much about us, about you and me, that they care fashion targeting mechanisms. And here I am not just talking about targeted ads. I am talking about subliminal cues, psychological microtargeting real time rewards and punishments, algorithmic recommendation tools and engineered social comparison dynamics.

    We have already seen and witnessed the scourge of disinformation on social media, we now know from research, driving a huge number of unnecessary Covid deaths because disinformation campaigns and also having a huge role in producing the seditious tragedy of January 6. What in my opinion is so important for you to understand is that these are all connected points in one process. And the ‘one process’ is called how knowledge of data becomes power, as advertisers are willing to pay much more for ads targeted based on users’ behavior.

    Apple is the wealthiest and most powerful corporation, certainly in modern history, perhaps in the history of capitalism. And apple now exerts unilateral, essentially unaccountable control over critical communications infrastructures, by its complete control of its operating system for its smartphones and other devices. I think it’s important for people to understand these facts and to understand that apple is not a government. Apple is a company. It’s a corporation. And corporation, CEO’s come and go, board change their membership. Business cycle and business crisis occur. And yesterday, Apple could have looked as a privacy-preserving corporation. And today, we could be having conversations about how Apple has reneged on all of these privacy values because they want to increase their market share in Asia. And all of a sudden Apple completely changes. And that is what exactly happens this month in China.

    Apple is preparing to store all the personal data of its Chinese customers on computer servers run by a state-owned Chinese firm. Chinese state employees physically manage this computer servers. Apple abandoned its encryption technology it is used elsewhere after the Chinese government would not allow it. And all the digital keys that unlock information from those computers are stored in the data centers, they’re meant to secure.

    Mr. Cook after talks about Apple’s commitment to civil liberties and privacy. But to stay on the right side of capitalism and Chinese regulators, Apple has put the data of its Chinese customers at risk and has aided government censorship in the Chinese version of its App Store. Apple’s compromises have made it nearly impossible for the company to stop the Chinese government from gaining access to all emails, photos, documents, contacts and locations of millions of Chinese residents, who all are Apple’s customers.

    Now Apple might be a company, but it acts like a government.

    It is clear to me, that the underlying norm of all software and apps designed now is data collection. For all kind of intents and purposes, all of them are designed to engage in surveillance.

    Apple still makes the majority of its revenue through its sales of iPhones and other devices. Nevertheless, an increasing portion of its revenue comes from services, and a big chunk of services is selling apps. So even if it’s not surveillance capitalist, it’s in my opinion a powerful enabler. A powerful accessory to this crime of surveillance capitalism.

    The question in my mind is now under the spotlight that Mr. Cook has chosen to shine on himself and his corporation after his new “China” strategy: Are they going to move to truly fill the shoes of what it would take to via privacy god, or are they going to continue to sort of fudge this alone and play all sides? To be honest, I don’t think we should ever expect a corporation which is listed to do anything that is not self-serving. Listed stock corporations are, by definition, self-serving. Apple already made it clear that they are looking at a way to expand their own advertising model, which is different from online targeted advertising.

    There was in my opinion a historic opportunity – prior to Apple’s recent China strategy decision – for Mr. Cook and apple to say, “Hey, we’re going to become the hub for an alternative, user-oriented ecosystem.” Apple was the corporation that could have provided a leadership role by forming alliances with other large, medium and even smaller companies to fund and develop an ecosystem where the whole investment profile will have changed.

    Users as well as investors in my opinion are ready for this because investors anyway are anticipating changing regulations that are going to take a bite out of surveillance profit. And that means in my opinion that Apple had a golden opportunity to start with its own new App Store. Most purveyors of products feel that they have a responsibility to sell products that are safe. Apple could finally have taken the responsibility for what it sells in its App Store and say we are only going to sell applications that observe privacy-preserving principles. It could have helped developers an alternative model of monetization it could have worked with investors to develop alternative models of investment.

    At the end, Apple actually could have become a collaborator with lawmakers, making personal available so that lawmakers and their staff have a forensic understanding of the kind of enforcement operations new, upcoming regulations are going to require. But apple and Mr. Cook chose a different, less challenging direction, leaving this opportunity to hopefully a new kind of group of start-up companies in the future.

    I actually feel great about it!

    What the EU is currently doing is in my opinion really taking us the frontier of the regulatory effort, and I think of it as really something that needs to be achieved in this decade or in the third decade of the digital century.

    Over the years we have kind of had to flinch a little bit when we watch our elected officials interrogating the tech executives because they often seem so outmatched. Well, those tables in my opinion really have turned. And in March, what we saw for the first time was US congresspeople that really have grasp the economic model of Big Tech the unaccountable power that has occurred to them. And for the first time, we heard them saying we understand this information is a byproduct of your economics. And this is going to end and we’re going to it.

    Companies did just fine for decades marketing to consumers without access to their every moment or keyboard and mouse click. And with 94% of Americans saying they liked it the way it’s in my opinion time for advertisers to listen.