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Apple's strong-arming for privacy

Screenshot from Apple's WWDC 2019 webcast.
Screenshot from Apple's WWDC 2019 webcast

Regulators are increasingly policing Big Tech's privacy violations while also investigating the same companies for anticompetitive behavior. Now Apple has thrown them a curve ball: It's leveraging its platform's market power to help users protect their privacy.

Driving the news: The new "Sign In with Apple" service, announced Monday, aims to offer apps and websites a privacy-protecting alternative to using Google or Facebook as a means of authenticating user logins.

  • As Google and Facebook have taken mounting heat for their user-data-driven advertising models, Apple has positioned itself as a privacy-respecting alternative.

The catch: Apple will require iOS app developers that offer Google, Facebook or any third-party authentication to also offer Sign In with Apple.

What they're saying: Apple defends the move as a benefit to both consumers and developers, noting that it's collecting no new data and only mandating the authentication be an option.

  • Apple says its option is also better for developers, allowing them to avoid having to share user data with Facebook and Google.

Yes, but: Critics say that Apple may not be capitalizing on user data today, but its good intentions shouldn't be a justification for insisting its feature be used in order to offer an app on the platform it controls.

  • There's a concern that Apple could change its tune once Sign In with Apple is used in millions of apps.
  • And while that would be a giant shift from today, when Apple CEO Tim Cook insists privacy is a human right, a future executive could change course.

The big picture: Sign In with Apple wasn't the only Apple move this week in support of protecting customer privacy. The company also announced...

  • Plans to limit the types of advertising that can be used in apps that target kids.
  • Changes to MacOS that will reduce access that security software and hardware makers have to the kernel, the operating system's foundational level.
  • An option to allow users to share their location just once with an app, rather than give it extended permission.

The other side: Apple this week also reversed an earlier position that limited choice in the name of protecting users.

  • The company previously barred app developers that make tools to track and limit kids' screen use from using a feature designed for businesses to monitor users' behavior.
  • App makers cried foul, suggesting Apple was limiting competition to its own Screen Time feature.
  • Apple is now letting the competing apps use such technologies to deliver parental controls as long as they don't share the data or use it themselves.

The bottom line: In most cases and for many consumers, Apple's stricter privacy protections will be welcome. But given Apple's total control over what apps iOS will run and what features they offer, it's also important to keep an eye on how Apple wields that power.