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Facebook-funded research paper slams iOS privacy changes

Amidst the flood of criticism over the privacy updates in Apple's iOS 14, Facebook has adopted a new tactic: sponsoring an academic paper that describes the policy as 'an anti-competitive strategy.’

The paper - titled Harming Competition and Consumers under the Guise of Protecting Privacy - is authored by Feng Zhu of the Harvard Business School and D Daniel Sokol of the University of Florida Levin College of Law. It explains 'how Apple’s iOS 14 updates dramatically alter today’s mobile OS ecosystem, wrongfully preference Apple’s products and services, and help Apple protect and augment its dominance over iOS and more broadly over mobile OSs. Finally, it answers the question of 'why such actions harm competition, and by extension, iOS users and consumers more broadly.’

What is App Tracking Transparency?

Apple's new App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature replaces the company's previous Identifier for Advertising (IDFA). It defaults to an opt-out setting, triggering a warning pop-up when an app is engaging in tracking.

Apps are required to disclose exactly what data they're harvesting and are prevented from reducing functionality when users decline to be tracked.

However, the argument of the new paper is that Apple is acting anti-competitively by automatically opting users in to its own apps - some of which then track them in their own way.

And while third-party developers need to ask permission on an app-by-app basis, users are automatically opted in to personalized advertising from Apple. Smaller competitors will thus be driven out of the market, the authors claim.

These accusations aren't new, but neither are they universally shared.

"Apple’s own privacy practices can certainly be further improved; however, they conform to the enacted privacy legislation. In view of rapidly growing privacy laws and regulations around the globe, Apple’s iOS 14 update merely follows the evolution of data protection law," says Ilia Kolochenko, founder of ImmuniWeb and a member of the Europol Data Protection Experts Network.

"Obviously, Apple’s competitors and advertisers may be unhappy about the new reality and attack Apple, as it’s much easier than challenging the law, for example, for being unconstitutional. I also don’t see any anti-competitive tactics by Apple," he added.

What Facebook has to lose

It's pretty clear why companies like Facebook would be concerned. Indeed, Mark Zuckerberg criticized Apple's privacy changes earlier this year while claiming that the company is now one of Facebook's biggest competitors. Facebook's even taken out newspaper ads criticizing the policy.

"There are some holdouts, like Facebook, who prefer the old way of doing things because it maximizes profits," says Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate at Comparitech.

"Those holdouts are threatened by anti-tracking schemes because Apple and Google act as gatekeepers for all users on their browsers and operating systems."

And, says Sammy Migues, principal scientist with the Synopsys Software Integrity Group, many organizations have a lot more to gain from tracking than the ability to target ads.

"If you have that much information for a few billion people, is getting revenue from widget advertising click-throughs really the most profitable endeavor you can think of? How about nailing down political leanings? Illicit affairs? Business improprieties? Who knows whom?" he asks.

"The possibilities are endless, if not for the companies in the data collection and ad space, then for the companies and governments that buy or hack all that data for their own nefarious purposes."

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