This has been a tough year for almost everyone, for a lot of reasons. For Facebook, it's been especially tough as it closes the year facing an antitrust suit from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and 46 state attorneys general, plus the District of Columbia and Guam. The company is also facing an existential threat to its dominant advertising business with several changes Apple has made to the latest version of iOS.
The stark difference in Facebook's response to both says everything you need to know about which it fears more. In both cases, the company is said to be involved in aggressive lobbying, it's just that one is playing out behind the scenes, and the other in a very public way. That public battle included two full-page ads last week in three of the country's largest newspapers.
Those attacks were pretty well derided by most observers as out of touch and untrue. Now, however, it appears that not even Facebook's employees are smoking what's in Mark Zuckerberg's pipe. That's according to BuzzFeed News, which reported that the company is facing internal pushback from employees who question whether the company's position is hypocritical and self-serving.
It is a little hard to take the ads seriously, especially considering how disconnected they are with the public perception of both companies, and with the actual reality of what Apple is changing in iOS 14. Basically, Apple wants to let you decide if apps should be able to track you and use your personal information. Facebook very much doesn't.
You may remember that Apple announced at its Worldwide Developer Conference in June that the company's newest version of iOS would implement a few privacy-minded changes. That includes requiring that app developers disclose what information they are collecting and tracking across third-party apps and websites. It also required that developers request user permission before tracking them.
It's the latter of those that has drawn Facebook's most fierce objection. One of the points Facebook is making is that Apple's motivation for enforcing privacy-centered policies is because the iPhone-maker's own apps don't use targeted ads, and therefore benefit by making it harder for other apps to use them.
Except, if Apple makes a change that is good for users, good for privacy, and also good for Apple's bottom line, I think any objective observer would count it as a win.
Sure, it's probably true that most people will opt out when faced with the choice of whether to let Facebook and other apps track what they do online. And it's also true that will affect the way platforms are able to target ads at those users.
It's also worth mentioning that advertising existed long before Facebook. Sure, Facebook makes it much easier for small businesses to effectively reach new customers.
Except, and this seems important to mention, Facebook already knows enough about you to make targeted advertising effective. It knows where you're located, who your friends are, what your hobbies are, and probably where you work. It doesn't need to track anything to get that information--most people give all that information freely to Facebook.
If I'm a wedding photographer who wants to target an ad to 25- to 35-year-old women who have just gotten engaged and live with 25 miles of my studio, Facebook makes it pretty easy to do that. I don't need to know which bridal publications or wedding dress websites they visited. Even if every single one of them opted out of ad tracking, it wouldn't affect my business at all.
It would, however, affect Facebook's. Which is exactly the point of the employee criticism.
In the most telling objection--which reflects what almost everyone already thinks about Facebook--an engineer wrote:
The only thing I'm hearing, again and again, is "this is bad for the businesses," and I'd really like someone at the top to explicitly say, "People are better off if they don't know what we're doing, if we don't have to explain ourselves to them, if they don't get a choice to opt in or opt out of our practices, if we obscure it as much as possible behind interesting features and then get them to accept surreptitious tracking on the back end as long as we downplay it."
There is a lesson here, which is that it can be easy to get so wrapped up in your own narrative that you lose perspective. When that happens, it's time for a little self-reflection. If everyone else is responding negatively to your version of reality, it's possible they're all wrong. It's also possible you are.
That seems pretty likely in Facebook's case, in that the company continues to promote a narrative that is completely disconnected from reality. Even its own employees recognize that's not the case.
I'll just say what I've already written on several occasions. If your business model will suffer when people are given a choice about whether they want you to track everything they do online, your business model might be broken. That's not Apple's fault. It appears Facebook's employees agree.