Why is Facebook fighting Apple’s App Store ‘privacy labels’?

Privacy news
3 mins

This post was originally published on December 22, 2020.

Whenever large tech corporations position themselves as champions for privacy, there’s always plenty of room for skepticism. But Apple’s introduction of App Store “privacy labels,” which started showing up last week and should keep users more informed about how apps use their data, appears to carry good intentions.

What are App Store privacy labels?

At the announcement of this feature in June, Apple equated the feature with nutrition labels on packaged food products, which could be an apt comparison as this move will provide additional transparency for users—particularly those less educated in privacy matters.

App labels will provide information on “data used to track you,” “data linked to you,” and “data not linked to you,” with each category breaking down into details like location, purchases, health and fitness information, financial info, and browsing history.

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If an app collects data that is passed on to third parties, the app maker will need to know precisely how that data is being used. Apple will also have the power to prevent apps from updating if they don’t comply with these labels, which should be a strong enough deterrent against non-compliance with these new rules.

It’s hard to see this as anything but a positive for Apple’s user base. It should provide additional transparency, make privacy more salient for some who are less inclined to consider them, and hold developers accountable.

Why is Facebook fighting Apple on privacy labels?

While all of this sounds good, there are some criticisms that have sprung up with varying degrees of validity. The loudest rebukes have come from Facebook—a company whose privacy violations we’ve often documented in this space.

The most apparent reason Facebook might object to App Store privacy labels is that the feature would expose just how much user data the company collects, while allowing users to easily deny Facebook permission to use their data for ad targeting—a major part of the company’s business.

But unsurprisingly, Facebook has directed its objections to other areas. A spokesperson for Facebook-owned WhatsApp pointed out that the new policy is anti-competitive because it applies to third-party apps but not pre-installed, first-party Apple apps like iMessage.

In response, Apple has said that privacy labels for its in-house apps will be available on its website. That answer may satisfy the company’s own requirements, but housing its apps’ privacy labels on its website defeats a major benefit of the feature: accessibility of information. Privacy labels essentially force users to reckon with their privacy when making the decision to download an app. Apple does seem to be dodging the spirit of its own law.

Apple vs. Facebook: Who is right?

Facebook is also mounting a messaging campaign against these changes, purportedly on the behalf of small businesses. The company ran ads in national papers across the United States on December 16, claiming that Apple’s new rules will limit small businesses’ ability to run personalized advertisements, and that the results could be “devastating.”

Although Facebook is wise in their attempt to claim that small businesses will be hurt the most, it’s awfully difficult to believe the company is thinking about anyone but itself here. When their primary point is that users deserve less transparency about how their data is being collected and used, they don’t have much of a leg to stand on.

While Apple’s rollout of these privacy provisions is by no means perfect—it would be great to see them find a better solution for their first-party apps, for instance—they are fundamentally arguing for giving users the ability to make more informed choices about their privacy. Facebook is arguing for the opposite.

Let us know in the comments what you think of the fight between Apple and Facebook over App Store privacy labels.

My passions are politics, sports, and how data helps us understood both. I’m kind of like a discount Nate Silver who hasn’t been famously wrong about anything—yet.