Apple has built its business selling devices and services, including strong privacy and security protections in its pitch to consumers, and its shares are now worth more than $2 trillion (U.S.). Facebook, on the other hand, has built an empire based on selling ads on its website and apps, including Instagram. The social networking giant lashed out at Apple last December in full-page ads in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times, arguing the new policy will be bad for small businesses that use Facebook ads.
Digital advertisers in France also complained about Apple’s move to the country’s antitrust regulator, which said last month it will allow the feature because it is in line with privacy rules (though the watchdog will continue to investigate whether Apple favours its own services and products).Now, in a Canadian exclusive interview with the Toronto Star, Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook talks about the company’s approach to privacy and how that helps set it apart from other big tech players.
You spoke really passionately about privacy in aspeech in January. Why does it matter?
We feel that it’s a fundamental human right. And we know that there’s more information about you on your phone than there is in your house. You think about it, you search on your phone and so the information about what you’re thinking is on your phone. Your bank records, your health records, your conversations with friends and family, business colleagues — all of this information is on your phone. And so we feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to help users from a privacy and security point of view.
We’re about to — in a few weeks — launch app tracking transparency (dubbed ATT) and something that we call privacy nutrition labels. (Apple will now require developers submitting new or updated apps to include a page describing the kind of user information they collect and what they do with it.) Both of them supply transparency and control. That’s what they’re about.
It’s about giving the user the option to be tracked or not. It seems so basic, but it’s been somewhat controversial.
We feel so much that it’s our responsibility to help our users be able to make this decision. We’re not going to make the decision for them. Because it’s not our decision either. It should be each of ours’ as to what happens with our data. Who has it and how they use it.
There was a report last week in the Wall Street Journal that some major companies including Procter & Gamble have been trying to find ways to get around it. Why has it attracted such strong pushback?
The only reason why you would push back is if you believe you’ll get less data. The only reason you would get less data is because people are consciously deciding not to do it and were not being asked before.
When I was growing up, people worried about peeping toms, you know, people looking in the window and seeing what’s in your home. I’m not sure that happens very much anymore, but now you have this sort of thing happening on the web — somebody looking over your shoulder, seeing what you’re searching, seeing who you’re talking to, seeing what ‘like’ buttons you’re hitting and so forth, and then building a detailed profile of that.
That’s only OK if you say that it’s OK, in our opinion. We’re not against digital advertising. I think digital advertising is going to thrive in any situation, because more and more time is spent online, less and less is spent on linear TV. And digital advertising will do well in any situation. The question is, do we allow the building of this detailed profile to exist without your consent?
We think that some number of people, I don’t know how many, don’t want to be tracked like that. And they should be able to say they don’t.
You’ve said privacy is not a branding exercise for Apple. But can you talk about how this shapes your relationship with customers and how it sets Apple apart from other big tech players including Facebook?
Yeah. It’s not a branding exercise for us at all. If you look back in time with Apple, you would find us talking about privacy decades ago. We think the current situation is urgent.
Some days it does feel like we’re on an island and that there are very few people on the island. But that doesn’t bother us because Apple’s always been the company that — we think different.
Looming Fortnite court fight has Apple boss defending ‘miracle’ of App StoreSome of the major privacy laws around the world — The General Data Protection Regulation in Europe, and even Canada’s proposed privacy reforms — centre on the importance of informed consent. But this concept of having the ability to opt out of tracking seems to go beyond that. Why did you take that step?
Because we see a world where if everybody thinks they’re being tracked all the time, then that will result in people changing their behaviour. They’ll begin to think less, they’ll begin to search less, they’ll begin to not express themselves fully. And that narrow world is not one that any of us should aspire to live in.
So this is beyond the law, yes, beyond today’s regulation. My own perspective is this is where the puck is headed. I think people will stop and pause for a minute and see what we’re doing and it’s not something that you would say, ‘Wow that’s really wild.’ It’s something you would probably look at and say, ‘That’s pretty reasonable.’ And I think the regulation will eventually catch up. That’s my prediction.
To defend the regulators, it’s very difficult with things moving so fast to predict where things are going. A company can move a bit faster.
At 4:30 a.m., just in time for the morning news cycle on the East Coast, Cook published an open letter to Apple customers explaining why the company would be opposing the ruling, which “threatens the security of our customers.” He referenced the danger that could come from the government having too much power: “The implications of the government’s demands are chilling,” he wrote.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
CDChristine Dobby is a Toronto-based business reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @christinedobby
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