Facebook is making bold promises about its commitment to respecting human rights. But the new policy remains silent on the implications of the company’s own sweeping data collection, and its recent reaction to Apple’s privacy improvements leave us asking — is Facebook really willing to defend privacy and other fundamental rights, even when it hurts?
“We need to inflict pain,” Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly told his staff three years ago, referring to Apple in the context of an ongoing privacy feud between the two companies. Apple and Facebook had been trading blows after Apple slowly began to improve its privacy practices, including making it harder for other companies to harvest data about iPhone users. You see, such changes could negatively affect Facebook’s revenue, as its ad business relies on user surveillance.
Apple hasn’t stopped its efforts to increase privacy, and recently announced updated iPhone privacy protections. Zuckerberg then accused Apple of interfering with how Facebook apps work. After the Capitol riots, Apple CEO Tim Cook responded with a not-so-subtle jab at Facebook, condemning “conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms.”
Despite what Facebook says about welcoming regulations, the company’s extreme overreaction to Apple’s voluntary, modest privacy protections shows where Facebook really stands on the issue. It will take a lot more than publishing a new human rights policy to demonstrate its commitment to respecting privacy.
Apple’s pro-privacy update
Apple has rolled out an iOS 14.4 update called App Tracking Transparency. The update was supposed to go live in September 2020. After complaints by Facebook and others, including the video game company Activision Blizzard, the release was delayed, but a coalition of civil society groups (including my own organization) urged Apple to keep pushing through.
Among other requirements, the update mandates that app developers ask your permission before tracking your activity outside of that app or website. Facebook is just one of the companies that do this kind of tracking to deliver targeted ads.
Apple’s update is a good, pro-privacy move. It aligns with people’s expectations that apps will track you only within the confines of the app, unless you specifically grant permission otherwise.
Facebook makes mountains out of molehills
Make no mistake: Facebook hates this update. It hates it so much that the company is running a series of expensive, absurd ads in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times to claim that it is “standing up to Apple for small businesses everywhere.”
Unfortunately, Facebook isn’t “standing up” for small businesses here. It’s standing up for its business model, which is essentially to collect every bit of information it can about you to monetize it later.
Apple’s update does not prevent personalized ads, and small businesses can still use Facebook to advertise. Facebook still has access to the troves of data the company collects on its own platform, and if people want to, they can even opt into off-app tracking to get more targeted ads. It’s not at all clear that small businesses that use Facebook will greatly suffer if Apple protects the people using its platform.
Facebook doesn’t actually want strong privacy legislation
Facebook claims it wants privacy regulations to increase trust online. Yet it pulled out all the stops to prevent Apple from protecting privacy. Its actions show that it does not want to accept external constraints on its business model.
The fact is that strong, comprehensive federal privacy legislation that truly protects people would affect Facebook’s business model, as would any serious implementation of its new human rights policy. There are good reasons to support a ban on behavioral advertising, which drives Facebook’s colossal revenues. Many people want a way to limit the purposes for which their data can be used. There is growing alarm about the way businesses that collect our data perpetuate data-based discrimination. What kind of “pain” would Facebook contemplate inflicting if it is forced to adapt to regulations that are not shaped by its own interests?
The lesson of Facebook’s standoff with Apple is that we must be wary of the company’s attempts to rebrand itself as privacy-friendly. Both lawmakers and the general public should look at actions, not words, and demand the company show — not simply say — that it will protect our privacy.