, , ,

Lo-res_110099519-SWhen they update their systems to iOS 14.5, Apple iPhone and iPad users will begin encountering a new pop-up message when they reopen an app for the first time after the update. The message asks explicitly if they give that app permission to track their behaviors, and a simple click can signal their rejection or acceptance of the practice.

Most apps already track people along their digital pathways, and though users have the right to refuse permission, doing so has involved a complex, multistep process, even just to find where the instructions are posted. By tracking users’ movements across apps and sites, marketers gained valuable data and information, the kind of insights that have allowed retail sites to offer up advertisements for precisely the product or service that a consumer had been searching for, on a different site, earlier in the day.

According to Apple, making the choice explicit and evident represents a way for it to help its customers take charge of and protect their own privacy. Clicking that they refuse to allow permission means that Apple no longer will provide their device identifier to the app. Although companies can use other forms of data to track consumers’ activities, by giving consumers a means to express their preferences, Apple also promises that it can help them avoid those other forms of tracking too. That is, if consumers allege that an app has been tracking them using data other than their device identifier and asks it to stop, they can rely on their choice, registered by Apple, as proof of their previously stated preferences.

As a result of this update, most observers and industry experts expect that companies will experience substantially reduced access to consumer data. Such limitations threaten to make marketing efforts more difficult, which is the outcome that underlies protests against the move by Facebook and other firms. Facebook in particular relies heavily on its ability to track users’ movements across apps, which it then integrates into a data packet that it can sell advertisers on its site. Advertisers that know what Facebook users are interested in can serve up better targeted, more personalized, more effective marketing communications. If Facebook can no longer gather and provide that information, it risks losses in one of its primary revenue sources.

Other competitors similarly have protested Apple’s moves, including its introduction of the AirTag, a locator device that people can attach to their keys or other small objects. Tile, the existing competitor in this market, already has alleged that Apple has made it more difficult for consumers to find its devices in its stores and that it disrupted the functionality of the Tile devices on iPhones. App developers that sell their designs through the App Store similarly accuse Apple of playing favorites, such as by highlighting games and apps by companies that allow the company to take a greater share of the profits from app sales.

In these cases, Apple maintains that its moves are nothing more than competitive efforts to keep giving its customers what they want. If consumers embrace these changes, by purchasing AirTags or clicking “do not allow” on app tracking pop-up requests, it would be hard for other companies to argue otherwise.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is there evidence that Apple is being anti-competitive in its introduction of these new offerings?
  2. Do you plan on allowing apps to track your movements, to ensure more personalized advertising, or to refuse that permission, to shield your privacy better? Why? Does your answer differ for different apps?

Source: Brian X. Chen, “To Be Tracked or Not? Apple Is Now Giving Us the Choice,” The New York Times, April 26, 2021; Jack Nicas, “Apple’s New Devices Target Markets Led by Smaller Rivals,” The New York Times, April 20, 2021