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Facebook v Apple: The ad tracking row heats up

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By Jane Wakefield

Technology reporter

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image captionApple’s Tim Cook (left) and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg

A new feature is being introduced to iPhones and iPads this week which is causing a huge rift between Apple and Facebook.

It will allow device users to say no to having their data collected by any app.

Facebook has been put in a spin by this because user data – and the advertising it can generate – is what makes the company so profitable. This update could deal a severe blow to its business model.

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What’s it about?

The row focuses on a unique device identifier on every iPhone and iPad, called the IDFA (identifier for advertisers). Companies which sell mobile ads, including Facebook, use this IDFA to both target ads and estimate their effectiveness.

The IDFA can also be paired with other tech, such as Facebook’s tracking pixels or tracking cookies, which follow users around the web, to learn even more about you.

But when iOS 14.5 comes out this week, the new App Tracking Transparency feature will be on by default. It will force app developers to explicitly ask for permission from users to use this IDFA.

Surveys suggest, and Facebook acknowledges, that up to 80% will say no.

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If you want to know how much Facebook already tracks you on other sites and apps, there’s a helpful tool on Facebook.

Why is Apple doing this?

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image captionHow much data we share from our devices is becoming the new battlefield for the tech giants

Apple has little interest in its customers’ data because it makes money from selling devices and in-app purchases, rather than from advertising. Plus it has always marketed itself as a privacy-first company.

Back in 2010, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs acknowledged that some people didn’t care about how much data they shared, but said they should always be informed of how it was being used.

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“Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain English and repeatedly… ask them, ask them every time,” he said.

More recently, in what many saw as a thinly-veiled reference to Facebook, current chief executive Tim Cook said: “If a business is built on misleading users, on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform.”

Apple is baking privacy into its systems. Its browser Safari already blocks third-party cookies by default, and last year Apple forced app providers in iOS to spell out in the App Store listings what data they collect.

And Facebook isn’t best pleased?

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Facebook has warned that the app update could cut the money earned through its ad network by half, hitting small businesses the hardest.

And it argues that sharing data with advertisers is key to giving users “better experiences”.

It also says that Apple is being hypocritical, because it will force businesses to turn to subscriptions and other in-app payments for revenue, from which Apple takes a cut.

As it often does when under pressure, Facebook has gone on a PR offensive. It took out adverts in national newspapers in December, featuring small businesses talking about how they only survived the pandemic thanks to targeted ads.

In its latest blog, Facebook appeared to accept the changes and promised “new advertiser experiences and measurement protocols”. It admitted that the ways digital advertisers collect and use information needed to “evolve” to one that will rely on “less data”.

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Why should I care?

In recent years, governments and regulators have become increasingly concerned about just how big and complex the ecosystem around websites, apps and social media companies has become.

Here are some points to consider:

  • the average app includes six third-party trackers that are there solely to collect and share your online data, according to a report commissioned by Apple
  • some apps request access to more data than is required to provide their service. TikTok, for instance, is being sued by England’s former children’s commissioner for collecting large amounts of children’s data
  • the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office is investigating real-time bidding – where data is auctioned in milliseconds, leading to the daily automatic placement of billions of targeted online adverts on webpages and apps
  • any one data broker is estimated to have data on up to 700 million consumers, according to research consultants Cracked Labs

What does the ad industry say?

Most think that change is coming, even without the iOS update.

Technology consultant Max Kalmykov wrote in Medium that advertisers had to “prepare for the next, privacy-focused era of digital advertising”.

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This may include contextual ads, such as fashion-related ads appearing only on websites about fashion rather than randomly following people across the web.

Ad placements on podcasts or with influencers would be another non-intrusive way of advertising, he suggested.

Meanwhile, Apple says that it supports the ad industry, and has introduced new free tools that let advertisers know how successful a campaign has been, without revealing individual users’ identities.

Are there other ways of tracking people?

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image captionDo we find anonymity and privacy in a crowd?

If you don’t have a unique number attached to a device, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be tracked.

Device fingerprinting combines certain attributes of a device – such as the operating system it uses, the type and version of web browser and the device’s IP address to identify it uniquely. It is an imperfect art, but one that is gaining traction in the advertising world.

The Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) may sound like something from a fantasy novel, but actually it is an idea from Google about how to continue tracking people in a privacy-friendly way.

The idea is that a browser enabled with FLoC would collect information about browsing habits and assign users to a group, or flock, with similar browsing histories. Each will share an ID which will indicate their interests to advertisers.

Mozilla, Firefox and others aren’t keen on the scheme, according to The Verge, while privacy advocates Electronic Frontiers Foundation said it was a “terrible idea”, suggesting Google should ensure that browsers “work for users, not for advertisers”.

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Facebook-Meta Earns the ‘Worst Company of 2021’ Title in This Survey

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Facebook has had its share of controversies this year. The company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents.

Facebook parent Meta has been named the Worst Company of the Year (2021) by Yahoo Finance respondents. According to the publication, an “open-ended” survey was published on Yahoo Finance on December 4 and 5, where 1,541 respondents participated. Facebook received 8 percent of the write-in vote, but respondents were seemingly mad about the Robinhood trading app as well. Electric truck startup Nikola, which was named last year’s worst company by the same publication also faced respondents ire.

Yahoo Finance notes, “Facebook has had its share of controversies this year.” Starting in January, Meta-owned WhatsApp got caught up in a huge controversy after the messaging app announced a new privacy policy (Terms of Service). WhatsApp said it would collect user information and share it with third-party apps for a better user experience. However, the app gave users no choice but later made modifications to the policy under pressure. Similarly, the company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents showing the company’s problematic practices. It was revealed that Meta-owned Instagram had a negative impact on teenage girls, but the company did almost nothing to rectify the problem.

Yahoo Finance even highlights, “At the same time, some critics, including conservatives, say Facebook over-policed the platform’s speech and stifled their voices.” Critics also blame Facebook and other social media platforms for not curbing hate speech that led to Capitol Building riots.

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However, around 30 percent of Yahoo Finance readers said that Facebook or Meta could redeem itself. One respondent suggested that the company could issue a formal apology for negligence and donate a sizable amount of its profits to a foundation to help reverse its harm.

On the other hand, respondents chose Microsoft as the Company of the Year (2021). The Satya Nadella-led company touched the trillion-mark this year and introduced notable upgrades. The most notable is the Windows 11 OS update that succeeds Windows 10.

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Facebook pays 1.7 Cr fine to Russia after failing to delete content Moscow deems illegal

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In the latest legal tussle with Russia over controversial social media regulation laws, Facebook paid 17 million roubles (Rs 1.7 Crore) for failing to remove content deemed illegal by Moscow. With a threat of potential larger fines looming, Facebook parent company Meta, owned by Mark Zuckerberg, is scheduled to face court next week over repeated violations of Russian legislation on content, Interfax News Agency reported. As per the latest updates, the social media giant could be fined a percentage of its annual revenue.

In October, Moscow sent state bailiffs to enforce the collection of 17 million roubles. Meanwhile, as per Interfax report citing a federal bailiffs’ database, on Sunday, there were more enforcement proceedings against the company. Apart from the popular social media app, Telegram has also paid 15 million roubles in fines for failing to comply with the Russian social media legislations that came into force in 2016.

Facebook pays $53k to Russia for refusing controversial social media laws

It is pertinent to mention that Facebook has locked horns with Moscow earlier in November, resulting in it paying 4 million roubles ($53,000) over its refusal to adhere to Russian data localisation laws, the Moscow Times reported. The Moscow court on November 25 had said that Facebook paid the fine levied in February, following which all proceedings against the US-based social media giant. The payment comes against the litigation filed against the company in 2018, alongside Twitter. The tech companies were also forced to pay an additional 3000 rubles ($40) for failing to comply with user data sharing rules as per the law. The Russian authorities have also previously blocked LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, for failing to abide by the laws.

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Russian social media laws

As per Moscow Times, under the Russian social media regulation laws, all foreign technology companies are required to store data related to Russian customers and users on servers located in Russia. Additionally, the Russian tech companies will also have to share encryption data with the federal authorities as well as record user calls, messages and civil society group conversation records. The apparatus is said to be a severe breach of privacy rights and unfettered back-door access to personal data that could be used to harass Kremlin critics.

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

Meta has announced the arrival of a new Split Payments feature in Facebook Messenger. This feature, as the name suggests, will let you calculate and split expenses with others right from Facebook Messenger. This feature essentially looks to bring an easier method to share the cost of bills and expenses — for example, splitting a dinner bill with friends. Using this new Split Payment feature, Facebook Messenger users will be able to split bills evenly or modify the contribution for each individual, including their own.

The company took to its blog post to announce the new Split Payment feature in Facebook Messenger. 9to5Mac reports that this new bill splitting feature is still in beta and will be exclusive to US users at first. The rollout will begin early next week. As mentioned, it will help users share the cost of bills, expenses, and payments. This feature is especially useful for those who share an apartment and need to split the monthly rent and other expenses with their mates. It could also come handy at a group dinner with many people.

With Split Payments, users can add the number of people the expense needs to be divided with and, by default, the amount entered will be divided in equal parts. A user can also modify each person’s contribution including their own. To use Split Payments, click the Get Started button in a group chat or the Payments Hub in Messenger. Users can modify the contribution in the Split Payments option and send a notification to all the users who need to make payments. After entering a personalised message and confirming your Facebook Pay details, the request will be sent and viewable in the group chat thread.

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Once someone has made the payment, you can mark their transaction as ‘completed’. The Split Payment feature will automatically take into account your share as well and calculate the amount owed accordingly.


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Tasneem Akolawala is a Senior Reporter for Gadgets 360. Her reporting expertise encompasses smartphones, wearables, apps, social media, and the overall tech industry. She reports out of Mumbai, and also writes about the ups and downs in the Indian telecom sector. Tasneem can be reached on Twitter at @MuteRiot, and leads, tips, and releases can be sent to tasneema@ndtv.com.

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