Apple and Facebook’s sparring over IDFA helps no one

Back in October, a coalition of human rights and privacy advocacy organizations — including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation — penned a letter to Apple that criticized its decision to delay the effective deprecation of the IDFA through mandatory implementation of the App Tracking Transparency (ATT) framework. Background on IDFA deprecation and ATT can be found here, here, and here.

The signatories of the letter serve, collectively, as an unlikely proponent of a platform policy as esoteric as ATT. Why should Human Rights Watch care about app advertising opt-in mechanics, or, even more abstrusely, the fact that the rollout of those mechanics had been delayed? In their letter, they state:

This is why we were so disappointed to learn that the full implementation of the AppTrackingTransparency Framework would be delayed to early 2021. This means that these privacy protections will not be available during the critical weeks leading up to and following the 2020 U.S. elections, when people’s data can be used to target them with personalized political ads. It will also leave iOS users vulnerable to rising levels of government surveillance triggered by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, we are particularly concerned by reports that the delay—which Apple says will give developers time to make the necessary changes—was due to pressure from Facebook and other companies whose business models are rooted in nonconsensual data collection at a global scale, and the discriminatory practices that this data enables.

The first part of this passage makes very little sense and is a logical misfire: the IDFA is really just a means of indexing in-app events to known user profiles and targeting those user profiles with ads. In-app event data isn’t very helpful in targeting users with politically-charged ads; at least, Facebook and the other platforms that typically traffic political ads have much better means of targeting relevant users with them.

The second portion of the passage is more trenchant. Apple endured a relentless deluge of exasperation from every corner of the mobile landscape after announcing the deprecation of the IDFA at WWDC 2020. But in retrospect, those protestations may not have influenced Apple’s decision as much as the fact that its SKAdNetwork SDK simply wasn’t working ahead of the launch of iOS14 — in fact, ad networks only recently started receiving fully-formed SKAdNetwork postbacks from client software, months after iOS14 was released.

It’s important to remember that, in the tense weeks ahead of Apple’s announcement that IDFA deprecation would be delayed, rumor and hearsay gripped the mobile ecosystem. Facebook announced a slate of significant changes to its advertising platform just a week ahead of Apple’s announcement that sent advertisers into a frenzy. When Apple’s announcement was made official — after rumors of the impending delay had circulated widely — many assumed that the delay was a direct reaction to Facebook’s purposefully public declaration that it had no choice, in pursuit of iOS14 compliance, but to alter its platform in a way that would ultimately harm “small businesses.”

But perhaps Apple’s delay wasn’t designed to appease industry pressure, especially from Facebook. One indication of this can be found in the volley of insults traded last week between Apple and Facebook over the letter penned by Human Rights Watch et al. In response to the letter, Apple wrote:

Apple’s approach to targeted ads, in fact, demonstrates that privacy-forward advertising is possible by putting user control at the center. We don’t track our users, and they can choose to disable ad personalization based on Apple’s first-party data in Settings. They can also view the information used to deliver ads by selecting View Ad Targeting Information….By contrast, Facebook and others have a very different approach to targeting. Not only do they allow the grouping of users into smaller segments, they use detailed data about online browsing activity to target ads. Facebook executives have made clear their intent is to collect as much data as possible across both first and third party products to develop and monetize detailed profiles of their users, and this disregard for user privacy continues to expand to include more of their products.

To which Facebook responded:

The truth is Apple has expanded its business into advertising and through its upcoming iOS14 changes is trying to move the free internet into paid apps and services where they profit. As a result, they are using their dominant market position to self-preference their own data collection while making it nearly impossible for their competitors to use the same data. They claim it’s about privacy, but it’s about profit. Don’t take our word for it. Small business advocates are speaking up about the crushing effect this will have on small business’s personalized advertising. As the Executive Vice President for Policy at the Interactive Advertising Bureau said today, ‘Don’t be fooled: the ad industry is still in a bind & Apple’s chokehold on small business is still real…Sadly, for consumers & businesses, it’ll change the rules of the game in its favor.’ Indeed, we are not fooled. This is all part of a transformation of Apple’s business away from innovative hardware products to data-driven software and media.

In reality, both companies are correct, although the phony probity and feigned indignation is a bit hard to stomach. Facebook opposes the deprecation of the IDFA because its mobile app advertising business is fundamentally dependent on the IDFA; Apple is deprecating the IDFA principally because it wants to retain control of the App Store and own the primary point of distribution (also: it runs a contextual ad network that can measure events at the user level).

In IDFA deprecation is Facebook’s Sword of Damocles, I wrote:

Facebook has grown its advertising revenue considerably since 2017, when it introduced the event-optimized App Event Optimization (AEO) and Value Optimization (VO) campaign strategies: all of that revenue growth is attributable to Facebook’s ability to calculate the probability of a specific user clicking on an ad, installing an app, and ultimately, making one or more purchases. With iOS 14, Facebook’s ability to do that is diminished: it can know which users click ads, but it can’t tie in-app events to individual user profiles, at least not in real time and in a reliable way.

What’s interesting about this very public street fight is just how nakedly self-interested each party is given the catalyst: a letter from, among others, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It has been clear over the past several months that the territory encapsulating IDFA deprecation, SKAdNetwork, ATT etc. is not some ad tech backwater that is the exclusive domain of advertising wonks. The deprecation of the IDFA is as mainstream as any change on a large platform, but it’s probably one abstraction layer too deep to be comprehended from a cold start: in order to understand why losing the IDFA is a disaster for mobile advertisers and advertising platforms, one must understand how advertising platforms use the IDFA to optimize ad campaigns.

Many mobile advertisers don’t fundamentally grasp these concepts. Appsflyer recently published a poll in which they asked mobile marketers how familiar they are with the coming IDFA-related changes to iOS14. The results are, frankly, horrifying:

So it’s impressive that a coalition of privacy and human rights advocates, at least peripherally, understand the role that IDFA plays in targeted advertising and why it is a vector of privacy abuse. Apple and Facebook would be well-served to recognize this: slinging mud at each other in the press doesn’t alleviate these concerns, which are seeping into the mainstream. That Apple and Facebook are quibbling — somewhat petulantly — over which party is the worse privacy offender doesn’t help to reassure smartphone owners that their data is being protected.

Rather than a sparring match, I’m sure advertisers and consumers alike would prefer to see Facebook and Apple coordinate on an advertising framework that preserves both user privacy and measurement efficacy. Advertisers still don’t know how Facebook will implement various features of SKAdNetwork; Facebook claims — understandably — that it can’t unilaterally make those important determinations, in part because of the limitations of SKAdNetwork (because the updateConversionValue() method can be accessed by any SDK in the client).

But a rock fight doesn’t move either party closer to a viable solution for advertisers or for consumers. The coalition that wrote the letter is right to be concerned but wrong about why: rather than antagonizing the largest advertising networks, Apple needs to better collaborate with them to produce a workable advertising framework with which consumers can be comfortable.

Photo by Pablo Rebolledo on Unsplash