Apple poses a false dichotomy between "privacy" and "competition"

Back in September, a Congressional committee investigating anticompetitive conduct by America's tech giants sent a letter to Apple (among other Big Tech firms) asking it for details of business practices that seem nakedly anticompetitive; Apple's response seeks to justify much of that conduct by saying that it is essential to protecting its users' privacy.

In particular, Apple claims that its decision to limit apps that compete with its own offerings to access the full suite of location data generated by Iphone owners' devices was a pro-privacy measure — and the fact that it shut rivals out of a market Apple was seeking to dominate is merely an unfortunate side-effect.

Apple continuously gathers and stores its users' location data (and the company has previously been caught lying about this) but companies like Tile (makers of Bluetooth based location tracking stickers for commonly lost items like keys) cannot access this data during setup even if an Iphone owner wishes to share it with them (users can undertake a complex procedure after the app is set up to activate continuous location data access).

This is particularly worrying, given Apple's history of using App Store data to pick competitors to clone and force out of the market.

Apple is also far from a perfect steward of its users' privacy: in setting up an Iphone, you "agree" to thirteen separate forms of location tracking, including location tracking for the purpose of ad targeting. Apple uses these tracking features to power a product that competes directly with Tile. Apple has also been caught operating a continuous surveillance program on Iphones that is used to generate secret "trust scores" for its users and their devices.

Even if you trust Apple today, that trust should not automatically be transferred to the company in the future under different management, which means that all the data-collection tools that Apple is monopolizing could crush any competitors who might, in future, offer better privacy protection than a future Apple might provide.

Some of the Members of Congress on the committee are skeptical of Apple's false dichotomy between privacy and competition, noting that it's an awfully self-serving logic (the argument is even less convincing when Facebook tries it on, using Cambridge Analytica as an excuse for kicking nascent competitors off its platform).

Competition and interoperability are key to privacy, because they allow third parties to investigate dominant products in the marketplace and reveal when they are breaking their privacy policies, and they allow competitors to offer privacy-protecting add-ons to existing, dominant products, which can gradually siphon users away from bad companies and towards good ones.

Apple's false dichotomy boils down to this: "Trust us." Trust us not to screw you over. Trust us not to have a change of heart. Trust us not to make mistakes.

If you think you can trust any corporation, especially a Big Tech corporation, especially a Big Tech corporation that sold out an entire country's privacy, bending to the orders of a genocidal, autocratic state that's put over a million people into concentration camps where gang rape, torture, and forced medical experimentation are routine — well, let's just say you've misplaced that trust.

The companies pointed to a conflict of interest inherent in the rollout of its new subscription services, which are an increasingly important part of the company's business as iPhone sales decline. "As Apple expands into additional services, some of which compete with developers like us, the need for a level playing field becomes ever more critical to allow the ecosystem to flourish," the letter said. Tile was another co-signer to the letter. Tile declined to comment.

Since the changes rolled out apps such as Tile, which helps people find their lost belonging via small devices they can attach to their key chains or place in their wallets, are at a distinct disadvantage. That is because most users stick with the default options in software, rarely going into settings to change options. Before the latest release, those apps were able to ask customers to consent to always-on tracking, which is necessary for apps including Tile to work. That option has now been removed.

Apple says recent changes to operating system improve user privacy, but some lawmakers see them as an effort to edge out its rivals [Reed Albergotti/Washington Post]

(via Naked Capitalism)

(Image:, CC BY-SA, modified; Cryteria, CC BY, modified)