by Brandon Butler
Of Labels and IDFAs 12/10/2020

Ben Thompson at Stratechery:

Starting today Apple will require all new apps and app updates submitted to the App Store to include detailed information about their data collection practices; these submissions will manifest to customers in the form of “Privacy Nutrition Labels”, which Apple introduced at WWDC in June.

In the previous paragraph, Thompson writes:

[L]et me be clear about my goals for this Article, which is going to be both more critical of Apple and more gracious to Facebook than the conventional wisdom about privacy on the Internet: you don’t have to agree with my conclusions, but I will feel I have accomplished my job if you can at least see that everything in this space comes with tradeoffs.

His arguments are all over the place, and he’s criss-crossing between the new Privacy Nutrition Labels, which simply inform consumers and are self-reported by the developers, and the new decision by Apple to limit the IDFA tracking on iPhones. While both were announced at WWDC, IDFA has been delayed into next year. All that’s happening today are the new labels on apps in the App Store that inform consumers about how their data is used. I think he’s mostly against Apple’s decision to allow consumers to opt-out of personalized ad-tracking — the new IDFA policy — and I think his argument mostly boils down to, “Since a computer, not a human, is looking at and processing your data, it’s not creepy.”

It’s never been about the “creepiness” for me, it’s about profitting off of me. Facebook has used my personal data to become a huge behemoth that is doing more damage to society than good. We’ve made Mark Zuckerberg rich by being his product, and I didn’t agree to that. Simply owning an iPhone doesn’t give Facebook and advertisers an inherent right to track me. Today, however, I can now see exactly what information apps are using to track me. It’s a good thing to know how an app is using your data (location, browsing history, contact info, etc) and make an informed decision on choosing to use the app. But nothing happening today will stop apps from being able to track me — unless I read the privacy label, decide the app is collecting too much information, and delete the app.

With IDFA, Apple will alert users that the app they’re using wants to track them, and will give them the option to opt out right in the dialogue box. Users can already opt-out of ad tracking in the iOS Settings (I’ve been opted out since day one) but I’m sure many don’t know about the option. That will change when IDFA goes live. Facebook doesn’t like Apple’s decision to give user’s a choice to not be tracked, because they know no normal personal would want to be tracked “across apps and websites owned by other companies”. The definition of crazy is nonconforming. If 99 out of 100 people want to opt out of being tracked on their phones — the thing in their life that knows more about them than any other device — then I’d say it’s crazy to say you should want to be tracked. But Thompson is making the argument that small businesses can only compete if they can track you with IDFA, but I don’t buy it.

Thompson himself says at the start of the article that he doesn’t track or sell his visitor data (just like Pizza Emoji) and yet he’s found a good niche audience — hell, his newsletter Stratechery was part of the inspiration behind Substack! When I was a kid, I subscribed to Nintendo Power, and when I was a teenager I subscribed to MacWorld, and I’d argue niche advertisers could find me and “lookalike audiences” without violating my privacy. The difference today is advertisers now want to know how many people click from the ad into the store and ultimately buy the product, and they can do this with startling accuracy and detail — even going so far as to track people who saw an ad online and then walked into a physical store to buy the product. I’m not going to argue with you if you want to say that’s creepy.

Today, Apple is simply giving consumers the option to see what kind of data collection an app is doing. What they do next year with IDFA remains to be seen, but I’m hoping they put a stop to some of this invasive and unnecessary tracking.