Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Apple Stands Up for Privacy. Does It Matter?

The ongoing tension between Apple and Facebook flared again this week, causing a dramatic hubbub in the tech industry. I’d argue it was a nothing burger. Not because it was unimportant, but because it’s clear that despite persistent evidence that our privacy is being violated, it might not matter.

Basically, the two digital giants engaged in an esoteric tussle over how Facebook did an end run around Apple’s very strict rules about data use on its app platform in order to suck up more user data. Through an app intended for internal use, Facebook paid people — including teenagers — $20 a month to track everything they did online. Since Facebook had been warned about this kind of thing before, Apple — noting the move was in “clear breach of their agreement” — retaliated by cutting off the oxygen, and Facebook’s access to its own internal apps. It did not, as many suggested it should, shut off other popular consumer-facing offerings on the iPhone like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

Shall I explain more? No, I shall not, because the details hardly matter, except to note that what Facebook did is the equivalent of sneaking out of the house after the curfew your parents imposed after you last sneaked out of the house. To put it more plainly, it was obnoxious and squirrelly and just the kind of behavior that we all now assume the company is capable of. Which is to say, we don’t trust Facebook in any way when it comes to using and protecting the data we entrust to it.

[Kara Swisher will answer your questions about this column on Twitter on Friday at 2 p.m. Eastern: @KaraSwisher.]

And neither does Apple and its chief executive, Tim Cook. Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder and chief executive, is clearly getting on Mr. Cook’s last nerve. I feel a little responsible for the acrimony, since it was in an MSNBC interview I did with Mr. Cook in March that the older, more seasoned executive decided to go full-bore on the young, leadership-challenged one.

At the time, Facebook was in the news for the rampant abuse of its platform by Russia, so I asked Mr. Cook about data abuse. He started by comparing Apple’s business model to one like Facebook’s: “The truth is, we could make a ton of money if we monetized our customer — if our customer was our product. We’ve elected not to do that.”

Then I asked: What would he do to fix it if he were Mr. Zuckerberg? His devastating answer: “What would I do? I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Ouch. In Silicon Valley terms that response was akin to Cardi B beefing on Nicki Minaj, except quantumly more geeky. There was a sharp intake of breath from everyone in tech, and a very pissy response from Mr. Zuckerberg, in which he called Mr. Cook “extremely glib.”

He then asked his employees to use Google’s Android phones instead of iPhones “because it is the most popular operating system in the world.”

Uh huh. Except that seems not to have worked and clearly many of his employees ignored the directive. There were reports that iPhone users at Facebook were left stranded this week when Apple cut off the company’s ability to use other beta and internal apps on the iOS platform. Along with unreleased versions of apps, that also meant employees could not access things like bus schedules and cafeteria lunch menus. Apple has since reinstated use of those internal apps.

Not knowing which fresh kombucha was being served at 1 Hacker Way obviously hit Facebook techies where they lived, which was the point.

It’s interesting to compare Apple’s response this time to a comparable episode with Google. TechCrunch (which broke the original story on the rogue Facebook app) noted that Google had done a similar thing with a research app. Apple did cut off its internal apps, but there was no public hand-slapping, and the tone between the companies has been cordial.

The difference: Mr. Cook has been irritated with Mr. Zuckerberg for a while, as tech companies like Apple have been lumped into the messes that Facebook has created, problems that have attracted the ire of regulators and the media.

It is not just Mr. Cook. A top executive at another tech giant termed it the “Facebook contagion,” and added, “they are infecting all of tech with their sloppy mistakes.”

But what’s most remarkable is how much Mr. Cook has become the critic-in-chief for Facebook.

It gets harder to play that role, however, when Apple makes mistakes, too. This week we learned that its FaceTime service had a significant bug that allowed people to spy on other people’s phones. Attorney General Letitia James of New York and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota both criticized Apple for being slow to reveal the issue to the public.

It was too slow. But in the end Apple was properly apologetic and did shut down the glitch. Still, it’s not a good look to have a major privacy snafu right after touting your commitment to privacy.

And it comes at a dicey time for Apple, which recently warned it was seeing weaker financial results and is under pressure to introduce even more new and innovative products. There is no rest for Mr. Cook, and many observers, including me, have posited that the next years for Apple will be challenging.

Still, it’s interesting that Mr. Cook climbed out on this limb anyway. Some insiders at Facebook are alleging he did so to get the heat off Apple’s troubles. But that’s a canard. Mr. Cook has long been vocal about distinguishing Apple from Facebook when it comes to user data and the importance of protecting privacy.

The bigger problem is that such an important issue might turn out to be the real nothing burger. Facebook turned in another stellar quarter this week, which made its stock rise strongly. So despite all the sketchy things the company is accused of doing by Apple and many others, most investors and analysts don’t seem to care, and they will never care, as long as its digital advertising business — goosed by its astonishing and nakedly ambitious ability to suck in data, data and more data from all of us — continues to impress. Simply put, Wall Street does not care.

Or to use an old bromide: Facebook is so poor, all it has is money.

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Kara Swisher, editor at large for the technology news website Recode and producer of the Recode Decode podcast and Code Conference, is a contributing opinion writer. @karaswisher Facebook

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