On Wednesday morning, Facebook took out a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal, and other publications, complaining that Apple's move to give users the ability to block ad tracking is bad for small businesses. There's more than a little irony that the world's second-largest digital advertising platform took out a print ad to complain about the impending death of digital advertising if Apple gets its way.
Maybe the biggest irony, however, is that Facebook's full-page ad used roughly 185 words to make its point, which is considerably less than the more than 300 words it took to disclose all of the ways it tracks users in Apple's new privacy "nutrition labels," in the iOS App Store.
In the ad, Facebook says: "Many in the small business community have shared concerns about Apple's forced software update, which will limit businesses' ability to run personalized ads and reach their customers effectively."
It actually does no such thing. Literally, the only thing new is that Apple will require apps to request permission from users before tracking them.
Of course, Facebook knows that most people will opt-out when faced with the reality that ad networks, like Facebook, are tracking their activity across apps and the websites they visit. Sure, it's true that targeted ads, or as Facebook prefers to call them, "personalized" ads, work.
Do you know what else works? Peeking in someone's window to see what kind of shampoo and toothpaste they use and then sending them coupons for those brands. Of course, that doesn't scale nearly as easily as digital ad tracking--never mind that I think we can all agree it's a gross invasion of privacy.
Except, it's not all that different than what Facebook is doing, while trying to frame the conversation as something Apple is doing to hurt small businesses.
All Apple is saying is that if you want to peer in the window, you have to ask permission first. That's a pretty user-focused stance that I think we can all get on board with. Let a user decide if that level of personalization is something they're comfortable with, or something they value.
In a statement, Apple says:
We believe that this is a simple matter of standing up for our users. Users should know when their data is being collected and shared across other apps and websites -- and they should have the choice to allow that or not. App Tracking Transparency in iOS 14 does not require Facebook to change its approach to tracking users and creating targeted advertising, it simply requires they give users a choice.
Despite the sheer audacity of the ad, it's not really surprising that Facebook would like to focus the attention elsewhere as it faces a pair of lawsuits from the FTC and attorneys general from 46 states, Guam, and the District of Columbia. That's on top of Apple's upcoming ad-tracking change.
I think the biggest lesson here is how badly Facebook is reading this moment, or the public's perception of the company. That part isn't really a surprise, but it is an important lesson.
In every encounter I've experienced, Facebook seems to genuinely believe that it is doing the best it can to deliver a service that customers value while protecting their privacy. The problem is that it's never been clear to users what that means, or what the cost is for that service.
Apple's App Tracking Transparency (ATT) requirements highlight that users pay for that service with their personal information, habits, and activity. Facebook knows that most people will be less inclined to think that's worth the cost if given the choice to opt-out. As a result, it seems to think its best play is to find a way to mobilize its constituency against Apple and make the iPhone-maker look like it's taking an unreasonable position that unfairly hurts users.
There's just one difference. People who use Apple love Apple. They love their iPhones. They love their Macs. They love using their AirPods. They love the experience of buying those products in Apple stores.
People who use Facebook, on the other hand, have no particular affection toward Facebook. It's true that people like using Facebook on their iPhone, but in general, they use it in spite of the fact that they are vaguely aware that everything they do is being tracked, collected, and monetized.
Facebook can't seem to see that few people view this as the social media giant "standing up to Apple for small businesses." Really, they're just standing out on a limb to protect a very lucrative business model that has come under intense scrutiny.
The point, however, is that if your business model will break if people are easily able to opt-out of tracking, or better understand exactly how much information you're collecting on them, that's a problem. Except it's not Apple's problem, and it isn't Apple's fault.