Why Facebook Wants to Stop Apple’s Big Transparency Push

Spoiler: Because it could gut Facebook’s ad business

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Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash

ave you ever pulled a stray thread on a sweater? Your effort to neaten it up sometimes leads to carefully stitched fibers coming undone. With enough pulling, the whole knit falls apart.

Apple’s App Transparency Tracking (ATT) technology, which is delayed until next year, could have that effect on technology and the Internet.

Apple ATT is a simple concept: Force app developers to reveal exactly when and how they’ll collect and share user data and what they might do with it. Front load that information on App Store pages, during app install and loads, and, ostensibly, give users the option to opt out.

Advertisers and major app partners, like Activision, Supercell, and, most notably, Facebook freaked out (and continue to do so), recognizing that this level of transparency could lead to millions of users opting out of Facebook’s ad program and tanking their mobile advertising business.

The outcry was so loud that Apple pumped the brakes on including ATT within iOS 14 and pushed it out until 2021 to give developers time to adjust.

Apple’s efforts, which will take effect whether or not developers are fully prepared is, in a way, Apple tugging hard on the thread of conjoined information and user data weaving throughout apps, the Internet, and the Web. That shadow network is the reason it seems like your Echo is listening to you and Facebook’s knowledge of the conversation regarding a possible purchase of an Instant Pot is almost omniscient. Every digital entity appears to know everything about what you're doing because at least one of them does, usually because you or someone you know searched or engaged with the piece of content, and because they are all connected directly or indirectly.

This data sharing started with Web beacons more than a decade ago, which took the concept of cookies and turbo charged it so that information you gathered on a Web site could be persistent and viewed by another to help them craft more contextual adds.

Apps grab data more directly and, through another weave of data partner relationships, share “anonymized” information about your activities. It’s what makes the ads on Facebook so relevant and effective. If you’re a teetotaler and you see ads for vodka on your Facebook page, you’ll ignore them. But if you see adds for juice or soda, you might click.

Relevance is the strong nylon weave that connects all of these Web sites, services, and apps. Without it, their ad model fails, which is why Facebook and others are panicking. Apple’s tugging the thread. Hard.

There is a counter argument here. When we open apps, visit shopping Web sites or any platform , ads that appear to serve our needs could be viewed as useful, relevant, even helpful. Without that invisible data sharing fabric tying all of them together, digital advertising will become as scattershot as most TV ads. And if advertisers can no longer rely on relevance to drive clicks, they may start to run more ads or, perhaps, give up on some platforms. Surprise, it won’t be regulation that kills Facebook.

Apple, which has been ultra-consistent on its data and privacy strategy, is probably doing the right thing, but Facebook and others are doing right by their businesses (and shareholders) in raising the alarm. In the end, though, Apple’s App Tracking Transparency will launch and impact countless developers and millions of users. In the meantime, I expect Facebook and others to start figuring out how to knit a new data sharing sweater.

Written by

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

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