Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

Does Facebook not even know how it sounds?

Speaking of digital privacy.

MacRumors reports Facebook has just posted its second full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post, starting with:

Apple vs. the free internet

Apple plans to roll out a forced software update that will change the internet as we know it — for the worse.

What are they talking about?

Apple has always subjected per-app privacy controls to explicit user approval. For example, you have to tap "allow" in a dialogue box before a new app can access your photos. In iOS 14.4 (likely), this scheme extends to the concept of tracking users across web sites owned by other companies, an exception which previously defaulted to an opt-out option.

The Internet's technical nature has allowed companies to accomplish and evolve user tracking to the point of nurturing an industry, often by exploiting web browser and networking features not designed for this purpose.

Because of this – notably – a company wishing to track a user hasn't typically sought their permission. Users often haven't even known this was happening, and companies typically haven't vocalized much beyond somewhat readable yet familiarly wordy and nebulous privacy policies. As this practice has grown, companies whose interests overlap with those of the user have been catching up, designing mitigating safeguards and measures with at least the expertise and creativity required for the tracking itself. To my memory, only then did user-tracking companies' voices begin to buzz more plainly, with a tone recognizable in these full-page ads.

And what was it this time, again? Apple versus "the free Internet"? For a dialogue box that only affects apps on the App Store while leaving the current web browsing experience untouched?

I think Facebook's argument is supposed to be this: Apple is, quote, "threatening" personalized ads; small businesses rely on personalized ads for revenue; therefore, let us band together against Apple for small businesses.

Apple isn't threatening personalized ads. They're explicitly – more explicitly than before, in fact – allowing users to grant permission to be tracked. The alarm-sounding translation happened entirely on Facebook's end, prompting questions that feel more closely coupled to the truth about whatever's going on here. What is it, Facebook? Do you expect users will say no? Why is that – are you not capable of explaining the benefits of personalized ads to them? You seem ready to explain to everyone but them – ready enough to spend whatever amount gets you full-page ads in high-profile newspapers.

I try to phrase gracefully, but for a dominant company with a respectable public relations staff, this seems so pathetic. Not only does Facebook's argument fall apart like smoked meat from a brisket, but I'm not even sure they realize how they sound. They might as well say, "the only solution we can think of is to track people without asking."

This from a company whose legacy is now largely one of grovelling contrition for massive negligence or misuse of users' data; a company whose developer keynote last year saw Mark himself gesture at the large-typed "The Future Is Private."

Needless to say, it reads less like Facebook cares about small businesses and more like they were scrabbling for a heartstring-tugging angle in the style of Harold Hill. Facebook's main campaign page even features a few small business owners demonstrating the same subtle panic Facebook presumably hopes to provoke generally, smearing the owners themselves with the same tastelessness. Not "please, iPhone users, consider opting in – you'll get personalized ads and could help us get ahead without much effort on your part; we'd really appreciate it" – but "please, everyone else, we need to force Apple to let Facebook track users without their permission – yes, please, support us, the small business."

Resurfaced with this campaign were remarks titled "A Path Forward For Privacy And Online Advertising," in which Erin Egan, Facebook's Chief Privacy Officer, elaborated on their technical history and stance with another virtuous claim: "… we continue to believe personalized ads and privacy can coexist."

Well, that sounds precisely like Apple's goal here; but we already know Facebook isn't keen on that. So what does Egan offer?

That’s why we’re investing in research and development of privacy-enhancing technologies. These technologies will help us achieve the value of personalized ads while using and sharing data securely in de-identified form.

What strikes me isn't the wording, but that sense of pattern: companies who don't sincerely respect the user have been on the record before as "investing in," "researching," and so on – meanwhile, companies who do have already done the research, and have been busy doing things, hence the conversation.

Indeed, the thesis of the article isn't the presentation of any kind of specific alternative, but a (just as familiar) call for "debate":

Should any one company decide for us where the balancing of equities should land when considering the pro-consumer and pro-competitive benefits of personalized advertising?

Well, Apple isn't deciding; they're doing what they can to ensure individual users decide, and only on Apple's own platform. No one has to use an iPhone, and some people do use iPhones because they believe Apple will furnish exactly this choice and control.

Why doesn't Facebook make its own phone, then, offering users the choice to flock instead to its benevolent garden? Well, it did:

AT&T, the exclusive U.S. carrier of the First, only reportedly sold over 15,000 units of the device, while both ReadWrite and Time named it among the biggest failures in the technology industry for 2013.

And I suppose that brings us back to today. I love social media in principle, and its rise was a time of excitement for me. But the more I hear since leaving, the more content I am to have opted out of Facebook entirely. It was a lot to lose, personally and – now, as an independent artist and developer – perhaps financially, but I don't want the help of a company harbouring this attitude in its leadership, let alone wearing it right on its shirt.

To cleanse the palate in wrapping up, I'll link this often-linked quote from Steve Jobs:

Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain English, and repeatedly. That’s what it means. I’m an optimist, I believe people are smart. And some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data. That’s what we think.

Apple's not perfect (as Steve also conceded), but that paragraph still rings distilled and true as the words of timeless leaders. Mark Zuckerberg was right there in the audience, yet ten years on, even the notion of that respect seems absent from Facebook's own thinking. The company has advanced superficially but not fundamentally. I hope others make up their own minds, and whatever you conclude, call it to memory next campaign. And here's to an Internet in which you're only tracked if you want to be: dare I say, a freer one.