Clash of the Tech Titans: Apple, Facebook, and the Fight over User Privacy

Re-published with iOS 14.5 launch. Original publish date was February 16, 2021.

Sometime this spring, Apple will push out a long-delayed update to iOS14. In it will be a policy change on user privacy that will upend marketers’ and various ad networks’ ability to target iPhone users with advertising effectively. Facebook, in particular, will experience significant headwinds in its ability to target users with messaging. Since this platform change was announced in June 2020, Facebook has been extremely critical of it, while also working to develop a solution that is both in compliance with iOS 14 requirements and preserves its targeting capabilities. 

So what is going on? Let’s take a look. 

It all starts with an Identifier For Advertisers, or IDFA. This is a tiny bit of code that assigns a random ID number to an iOS device. Using this IDFA, ad networks are able to target and measure the effectiveness of advertising at the user level. To date, users haven’t had great line of sight into which apps had access to their IDFA, or how that data was being used to track their behavior.  

Apple has publicly stated its recommitment to user transparency. As a result, when iOS 14 rolls out in full, all apps will be required to do three things: 

  1. Provide a Data Nutrition Label, disclosing the app’s data collection practices
  2. Apps must ask the user for permission to track them across other apps and websites
  3. All apps must maintain full functionality, whether the user agrees to the tracking or not 

Each of these requirements is mandatory for an app to maintain certification on the App store. 

While privacy advocates have praised Apple’s announcement, Facebook has strongly objected. As a free social network, Facebook’s primary revenue source is advertising – and that advertising is built upon the very tracking techniques that Apple is looking to limit. 

The social network warned that the policy change would restrict its ability to leverage that data, leading to less profitability. Facebook has also claimed that the change would hurt small businesses that depend on Facebook’s targeting capabilities.  

Facebook has been working to build an antitrust legal case against Apple, challenging its control of the App Store. No word yet if it will follow through with the lawsuit. Regardless, both parties have used investor calls and keynote speeches to establish their positions, in an effort to win the battle of public opinion. 

One thing is for certain: The IDFA change will happen, and there will be tangible implications for targeting, optimization, reporting, and measurement.  

But there are things that brands can do to prepare! Look for a future Coffee Break to learn more.