Digital Transformation Data & Privacy

Experts skeptical of Tim Cook’s push for privacy legislation: ‘This is monopoly 101’

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By Kendra Clark | Senior Reporter

June 13, 2022 | 9 min read

On the heels of Tim Cook’s endorsement of a new comprehensive federal data protection bill, privacy, media and adtech experts share insights on how such a policy would impact Apple’s market position — mostly for the better.

Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook penned a letter to Congress on Friday urging lawmakers to advance the American Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADPPA), a sweeping piece of privacy legislation introduced earlier this month by a bipartisan group of legislators.

Crowd gathered outside of a large Apple store in a city

Apple has positioned itself as a leader in privacy — but is it mostly for show?

If passed, the bill would introduce new protections for consumers and expand their control over how their personal information is used online. It would also reduce the amount of data that organizations can collect about consumers.

Cook sent the letter, urging Congress to advance the bill “as soon as possible,” just a day after he met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. “Your drafts would provide substantial protections for consumers, and we write to offer our strong support towards achieving this shared goal,” he said in the letter. Cook acknowledged that Apple does not always see eye-to-eye with legislators, noting that “there are outstanding issues to be resolved,” but expressed confidence in shared objectives, writing: “the areas of agreement appear to far outweigh the differences.”

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Cook’s advocacy aligns with Apple’s efforts in recent years to position itself as a leader in consumer data privacy protections in light of cookie deprecation and growing demand for greater transparency on the part of tech titans. Most notably, the company has gone to great lengths to bake user controls and consent-based tracking frameworks into its operating system over the last year-plus. Such changes, however — including Apple’s AppTrackingTransparency (ATT) framework, which gives users greater say over how their behavior is tracked across the web — have disrupted ad targeting capabilities, leaving many businesses scrambling to find new ways to monetize.

In his letter to Congress Friday, Cook said that Apple will “continue to innovate and develop new ways to protect user data,” but argued that only Congress can create strong protections for all US consumers.

Privacy experts see Cook’s campaign as both an effort to reinforce Apple’s stance on consumer data protections and also as a strategic move that could benefit the company’s bottom line. Here are their top takeaways:

1. A reinforcement of Apple’s privacy posture

Leading privacy professionals see Cook’s endorsement of ADPPA as an expansion of the company’s existing philosophy and believe that it will underscore the company’s position as a privacy leader in tech.

“Last year's AppTrackingTransparency change wasn't Apple's first foray into privacy,” notes Matt Voda, chief executive officer at ad measurement firm OptiMine. “Apple has had several privacy-related changes on its devices and in the Safari browser that started several years ago. And the company has continued to enhance and extend these privacy protections over the years as ad tech vendors have sought ways around these restrictions.”

He points out that privacy “makes sense” for Apple's business because it positions the company in opposition to competitor Google, which has long relied on collecting and monetizing consumer data.

Arielle Garcia, chief privacy officer at media agency UM Worldwide suggests that the bill’s protections may have even been shaped by Apple’s own privacy policies. “ADPPA as currently written would require ‘affirmative express consent’ for the collection, use and sharing of sensitive data,” she explains. By the bill’s definition, ‘sensitive data’ includes “information identifying an individual’s online activities over time or across third party websites or online services,” per drafts. This definition, according to Garcia, “essentially mirrors Apple’s definition of ‘tracking’ from their AppTrackingTransparency framework,” which she says, “may be indicative of the reported influence of Apple’s lobbying efforts.”

2. A benefit to Apple’s business success

Of course, experts doubt that Apple’s focus on consumer privacy is purely moralistic. Marketing itself as a leader in privacy is sure to further entrench Apple’s marketplace dominance, they say.

For one, a comprehensive federal privacy policy like ADPPA would do damage to some of Apple’s biggest competitors, who would face new hurdles to generating ad revenue, since ad targeting would likely be disrupted. “Passing a federal law definitely hurts Apple‘s competition, mainly Meta," says Tim Glomb, vice-president of content at adtech company Cheetah Digital. "Apple owns the device, so they still get all the data they need.” He notes that “it remains to be seen” whether Apple will be well-equipped to activate on this data.

“Regardless,” he says, “in the eyes of the consumer, Apple will most likely look like the hero and that’s most likely why Cook is so vocal — otherwise, he would just focus on making Apple products more privacy-centric.”

Another benefit to Apple, OptiMine’s Voda suggests, lies in federal policy’s potential to alleviate some of the pressure that Apple is under as a privacy leader. “Today, Apple must play the arbiter role each time they roll out new privacy features and I think they'd prefer to have the government take that on,” he says. “[This bill] makes life easier for Apple because they won't be sitting out in the market alone on this front — and it pushes the government into the middle of enforcing compliance, while shifting Apple out of that mode.”

Others are more explicit in their observations. “Apple's 'privacy-centric ethos' is one and the same as 'what makes Apple more money,’ as all their big tech competitors make most of their money off of user data and Apple doesn't. At some point, Apple recognized this and made privacy an ethos as a way to get a leg up on their competition,” says Shiv Gupta, managing partner at U of Digital, a digital marketing education firm.

He goes on to argue that Apple “cares less about ensuring data is used in a privacy-friendly manner, and more about how privacy can be used to further their own interests.” He points to the company’s refusal to entertain challenging viewpoints from advertisers and publishers as well as what he calls “unilateral decision-making on behalf of consumers” in the deployment of frameworks that limits the way advertisers and publishers can track user behavior online. Most damning, he says, is the tech giant’s “expensive pro-privacy ad campaigns that sensationalize the issue to the masses in favor of Apple.”

Gupta argues that Apple weaponizes consumer privacy as a tool for competitive gains. “Apple's playbook has been simple: turn the public and government against their competition [as it relates to] privacy, create anti-competitive advantages in their dominant platform using privacy as the guise and build their own monopolistic ads business on their platform to steal competitor market share,” he says. “This is monopoly 101. Apple has become the Catholic Church of tech — it's messed up.”

3. Only the beginning

Some suggest this is just the beginning, and that subsequent privacy changes are bound to reinforce Apple’s control of the market. "We are in the early innings of seeing Apple’s full privacy and controls framework and user experience offerings," says Jesse Redniss, chief executive officer and cofounder of Qonsent, which bills itself as a privacy enablement and consumer engagement platform. "The market, as evidenced by the sharp impact that the ATT framework had on companies big and small — Snap and Meta being the most publicly impacted in earnings reports — are seeing the first wave of Apple’s privacy vision.”

He argues that Apple, alongside Microsoft and Amazon, is “positioned to be privacy gatekeepers for any digital touchpoint where they are the operating system.” As a result, they’ll be better poised to navigate ecosystem disruptions like cookie deprecation, as they will be able to “aggregate identity resolution and verification across devices and households and apply their privacy controls to that.”

Ultimately, players in advertising and media will suffer, says Redniss. “This will inevitably squeeze the broader TV and ad data marketplace."

However, despite bipartisan support for federal data protection legislation, experts remain skeptical that a sweeping bill like ADPPA will be signed into law — largely due to the ripple effect it would have in big tech. Pranav Yadav, chief executive at marketing firm Neuro-Insight, puts it simply: “Too much money rides on these platforms monetizing [consumer data] that this threatens to take away.”

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