Is the iPhone’s new anti-ad tracking update a blow for freedom or a shackle on business?
It could be both. But for most, it looks like a breath of fresh air.
The latest iOS 14.5 update will start showing you pop-ups when you open an app.
It will ask you this question: “allow [app] to track your activity across other companies’ apps and websites?”
This will be accompanied by a short pitch from the app concerned as to why it needs you to do this. (Although it can’t link your answer to functionality – Apple’s new rules forbid tracking to be a requirement for the app’s features to work.)
If you say no, that app can’t track you across the web for the purposes of ads. (If it’s found to be doing so, it’s booted out of the App Store.)
If you say yes, it’s business as usual.
This isn’t buried in some hidden menu — it’s a pop-up you can’t avoid, written in plain English.
But not everyone is happy.
“Apple has not only disproportionately impacted SMEs, but has also curtailed a popular route to market for many,” says David Campbell, director of Digital Business Ireland, which represents online Irish companies.
“The move to crackdown on ad tracking in Apple’s iOs 14.5 will cast many small businesses digital marketing plans into disarray.”
This isn’t a popular thing to say out loud. But for all of the creepiness of online ads, they’re very efficient at speeding legitimate businesses to audiences that are most likely to want their product or service.
Say you lose your job and set up a new home business selling artisan products. There are people out there who not only buy artisan products, but quite like browsing new ones or knowing they’re there.
A Facebook ad campaign, for example, can target demographics with precision. If you only have a few thousand to market your business, it might be the difference between surviving and going bust.
There’s no doubt about who has the moral high ground here. Apple’s argument – that all that’s offered here is giving people a choice about whether to be tracked or not – is almost unassailable. Who can argue that people should be forced to be tracked?
And yet there is still the whiff of a commercial power play among the moralising over privacy.
By implementing this move, the company is dealing a competitive blow to Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Google.
Apple gains more control and influence over what its own customer base sees and does.
Lest anyone think that Apple is beyond leveraging its power to advance its competitive position, it is currently facing numerous anti-competitive probes about its App Store, specifically on why it takes so much money from developers.
The wider politics of this are messy in parts, too.
The newspaper industry, usually so dead set against Facebook and social networks, finds itself on the same side as Mark Zuckerberg. German media magnate Axel Springer, who has previously railed against data being shared by social networks, is now taking legal action against Apple because his newspaper group can’t track users online for ads.
All of this has to be borne in mind when navigating the rights and wrongs of this issue: it can be as much about narrow commercial interests as a better internet.
There are already some indications that most people will opt out of being tracked.
One US company, AppsFlyer, has tracked 550 apps under the new iOS tracking update. It says that just 26pc of people ‘opted in’, meaning that they consented to be tracked by the app in question. If this holds true, three-quarters of the apps we see and use online will be cut off from tracking us around the web.
The change in iOS 14.5 is so powerful that it’s enflamed a war between Facebook – which depends on ad-tracking for a large chunk of its business – and Apple.
Facebook says the pop-up is “misleading”, negatively framing the issue and insufficiently explaining what it means. It also claims that this will make the internet more expensive and less expansive for ordinary users, arguing that ads are a key factor in funding what would otherwise not be free services.
Apple says it’s purely a matter of choice – you can still choose to let sites or apps track you with ads if you want. You just have to pick yes or no.
So is it a no-brainer to just tick ‘no’?
For privacy-conscious people, it is. Finally, you might have a chance to reduce the scale of the number of unknown entities getting to know so much about you through using your phone online.
Finally, there will be fewer incidents where you’re wondering whether it was something you said out loud that is now resulting in you seeing ads. (That doesn’t happen, by the way, but because online ad-tech is so pervasive and clever, it sometimes seems as if it does.)
But as is often the case, there’s another side to it. For quite a few small businesses, taking away the ability to track users is a real blow to reaching potential customers.
“This will be acutely felt by the SME community as they look to every sales channel possible in order to reach their target audience while they struggle to compete with large multiples,” says Digital Business Ireland’s David Campbell.
“It will also bring another layer of cost to businesses as they will be forced to re-evaluate their digital strategies in light of this development.”
Personally, I’ll probably disallow about half of the apps I use from tracking me.
I might allow some services to do so, such as local operators. But a good chunk of my online time will now revert to generic ads rather than ones related to things I’ve been doing.
Sunday Indo Business