Apple, too, has benefited from just doing business with the biggest privacy offenders in the tech sector. Despite Cook’s claim in Brussels that the “stockpiles of personal data serve only to enrich the companies that collect them,” Apple does lots of deals with those companies. Safari, the web browser that comes with every iPhone, is set up by default to route web searches through Google. For this privilege, Google reportedly paid Apple $9 billion in 2018, and as much as $12 billion this year. All those searches help funnel out enormous volumes of data on Apple’s users, from which Google extracts huge profits. Apple might not be directly responsible for the questionable use of that data by Google, but it facilitates the activity by making Google its default search engine, enriching itself substantially in the process.
The same could be said for the apps Apple distributes. Companies such as Google and Facebook get access to iPhone users by offering their apps—Messenger, Gmail, Google Maps, and so on—for download from the Apple App Store. Most cost consumers nothing, because they exist to trade software services, such as email or mapping, for data. That business model helped stimulate the data-privacy dystopia we now occupy.
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It wasn’t so long ago that the kinds of certificate-signing arrangements at the heart of the latest dispute between Apple and Facebook didn’t exist at all. People and companies would make software and distribute it to customers, whether on disks or on CD-ROMs or online. The platform owners were uninvolved. Then the App Store came along, and with it app review, the process whereby Apple evaluates the fitness of each software program for its sales channel and platform. It can seem confusing and arbitrary, but the app-store model has overtaken digital software distribution. Now every software creator who wants access to the iPhone pays an annual tax to Apple, and all iPhone users are tied to the editorial choices Apple makes on their behalf.
The public might reasonably wonder what it has gotten in exchange for the loss of a direct line between software creators and customers. There are some clear security benefits , as malicious programs can get snared in review. But is that enough? If Apple really objected to data-hungry business models, it could take much more aggressive action during app review. Apple owns the platform and its tools. It is in the best position to enforce a set of values about data access and collection, if the company truly believes in them.
App review is just the start. Free services underwrite data-aggregation businesses by increasing their install bases. That’s changed consumers’ expectations—free apps are the norm , and charging even a dollar can dissuade downloads. That state of affairs encourages ad-monetization, data brokering, and in-app purchases as alternative revenue models. Apple could regulate free apps more aggressively, which could encourage developers to sell more apps for purchase. Done right, that could help turn the market away from data-driven business models, at least in part.