“Allow this app to personalize advertising for you?”

Last week, I circulated a thought experiment on Twitter. What if, instead of the verbiage that currently decorates the App Tracking Transparency prompt, the prompt text read:

Predictably, the tweet received a fair amount of pushback. The language used above is obviously loaded, but that’s the point of the exercise. The current prompt text alludes to an intimidating activity — tracking — that isn’t qualified against any apparent benefit for the user. If the text below drives global opt-in rates in the 10-20% range, what rate of opt-in would the text above deliver?

As I described in my recent interview with Stratechery, the existing ATT prompt text is loaded, too. Even granting that “tracking” is the right way to describe the events stream that ad platforms receive from apps and websites, it’s irresponsible to ask a user to opt into the passive state of being “tracked” while withholding any explanation of what the user receives in return.

I made this point in App Tracking Transparency does not provide real consumer choice, and I don’t want to relitigate that argument. The problem with forcing advertisers to adopt the “tracking” language: Apple is allowed to describe its own ads targeting and user segmentation mechanism as “ads personalization” (the below screen can be found in SettingsPrivacyApple Ads).

Louis Brandeis, the former Supreme Court justice and namesake of the New Brandeis school of anti-trust law scholarship defined privacy in his seminal Harvard Law review paper, The Right to Privacy, as the “principle of an inviolate personality”: a concept that extends the protections of property rights to intellectual and emotional well-being but that isn’t yoked to any pecuniary standards of damages or harm. Simply put, Louis Brandeis described privacy as the “right to be let alone.”

What the above screenshot showcases is that Apple has defined “privacy” in a very specific way, with a standard that is only applied to its competitors. Apple can use the gentle, pacifying framing of “personalized ads” because it “does not track” users by the arbitrary definition of “tracking” that Apple has conjured out of thin air.

Apple contends that it wants to give users a convenient, straightforward, plainly-explained mechanism for controlling their own privacy, but then it camouflages the privacy parameters that apply to its own ad platforms and audience targeting implements. And Apple also simply provides its own ad network with more data than it provides to competing ad networks. It’s clear that Apple has created a privacy standard that confers upon it meaningful benefits.

Privacy is an abstruse concept — like love, or courage, or compassion. Apple has weaponized the notion of privacy by presenting it as an all-or-nothing proposition: a user either has privacy, or they are being constantly and absolutely surveilled via “tracking” by mendacious ad platforms. In truth, privacy is a spectrum that involves trade-offs. If less data is collected from users in digital products, then less data is available to personalize digital product experiences or to target ads, and so users’ access to digital content must be more directly monetized. The freemium model is wholly predicated on personalization, including the personalization of advertising. Apple knows this. Consumers, generally, don’t.

To be very clear: I find the IDFA problematic (as I detailed in The IDFA is the hydrocarbon of the mobile advertising ecosystem), and I think initiatives like Google’s Privacy Sandbox represent the correct direction in which the digital advertising ecosystem should move. But zooming out and observing the broader parallax shift that Apple is orchestrating through its privacy policies — across mobile apps and the mobile and desktop web — reveals its intentions. Apple defines privacy in a way that benefits its own commercial interests and harms the commercial interests of its competitors. Apple has wrapped its arms around the open internet with a privacy bear hug that is designed to entrench and enrich its own closed ecosystem.

Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash