Jan 28, 2021 - Technology

Big Tech at war over privacy

Illustration of a cursor surrounded by sandbags
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The world's biggest tech firms are at each other's throats over how to manage data privacy, an issue that will shape the internet economy for years to come.

Why it matters: Absent any U.S. government intervention, tech companies are introducing rules that favor their own ideals and business models, sometimes at their peers' expense.

Driving the news: Apple on Wednesday unveiled a new campaign called "A Day in the Life of Your Data,” which features a report illustrating how companies track user data across websites and apps. 

  • Apple's privacy campaign is meant to help consumers understand how third-party companies track their information and how Apple's tools help them protect their data. Apple recently introduced changes to give users the chance to opt out of being tracked by other companies that sell ads online.
  • Facebook has waged a very public battle against Apple's privacy changes, including putting privacy labels on apps in the app store. Facebook says the move will harm small businesses, and likely its own bottom line. On Wednesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg told investors, "Apple may say they're doing this to help people but the moves clearly track with their competitive interests."
  • Google on Wednesday joined the fight, for the first time publicly warning its advertising partners that focus on app-installs that they "may see a significant impact to their Google ad revenue on iOS after Apple’s ... policies take effect."

The big picture: For years, tech giants lobbied against having any federal privacy rules at all.

  • But after a few states, particularly California, began rolling out their own laws, tech giants quickly realized that a single, less stringent, national privacy law would be a better alternative, and started to band together around it.
  • Once it became clear that a national law was still far off, tech giants began to address user privacy concerns on their own. This has caused tension between players that rely on ad revenue (Google and Facebook) and those that don't (Apple).

Be smart: Some tech firms, such as ProtonMail, DuckDuckGo and Snapchat, that built their business models and products with privacy at the center have managed to dodge getting drawn into these internecine battles.

What to watch: Apple last year said it would delay changes to its "Identifier for Advertisers" (IDFA) user tracking feature to give developers enough time to prepare. It's unclear exactly when these changes will finally arrive, but they are expected this spring.

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