How many people could have anticipated the current data privacy concerns that Facebook is facing, over the news that third parties were able to scrape the data of millions of users? More to the point, how many in Silicon Valley were prepared to address such an issue? This is not to say that there weren't people warning about the dangers of balancing data privacy and personalization--but how many people knew that it would happen on such a large scale as this?

Well, there's at least one person who saw most of this coming--and it's a name you're all probability familiar with. Facebook's attitude towards privacy is in marked contrast to that of the late Steve Jobs.

At the 2010 D8 conference, and in a video that has recently come back into prominence, Jobs articulates his views on privacy very clearly and forcefully: "Privacy means people knowing what they sign up for--in plain English, and repeatedly." In the video, Jobs positions Apple as the gate that comes between (in this case) iPhone users and the potentially malicious actors that are looking to collect users' information. Noting that "a lot of people in [Silicon] Valley" consider Apple to be "old-fashioned" when it comes to data collection and privacy, Jobs says that ultimately their goal is to make sure that people know what they're getting into, and what their data will be used for. Hence features like a curated app store, which prevents developers from creating programs whose only purpose is to go in and suck up all of your user data.

Now, the cynical among us could argue that this was just Steve Jobs being savvy by differentiating Apple from its competitors. By positioning it as the company committed to the idea of safeguarding the privacy of its users, Jobs "made the comparison between Apple and companies like Facebook and Google inevitable", as Samir Addamine, founder of mobile marketing automation platform FollowAnalytics, puts it. Tim Cook, Jobs's successor, seems to be carrying on in his footsteps, remarking in an interview that while Apple "could make a ton of money if we monetized our customer," they've "elected not to do that." The company's view, according to Cook, is in stark contrast with that of Facebook: The customer is not the product--the physical device is.

Because of Jobs's vision (or at least in part), Addamine (a thought leader in the realm of data privacy) posits that Apple's internal rules regarding user privacy in fact anticipated GDPR, the laws put in place by the EU to safeguard the data privacy of its citizens. For instance, any iOS app that wishes to collect someone's location data must first ask for their permission, and users are free to change their privacy settings whenever they wish. Apple also emphasizes the fact that, while the company does rely on data from customers to inform its products and services, it takes care to anonymize that data so that it cannot be traced back to a particular individual.

Given today's privacy concerns, it is a little refreshing to see a company list the ways it is protecting users' privacy, instead of the ways that advertisers can exploit the data it collects. But it is also true that Apple's business model is very different from Facebook's: As Mark Zuckerberg pointed out, Facebook is free to use, unlike Apple, which relies on the sale of relatively expensive devices as its main revenue stream. The only way that Facebook can remain free is if the platform monetizes its data in some way. "The reality here is that if you want to build a service that helps connect anyone in the world, then there are a lot of people who can't afford to pay," says Zuckerberg. "And therefore, as with a lot of media, having an advertising-supported model is the only rational model that can support building this service to reach people."

Nevertheless, it looks likely that Jobs specifically stayed away from the ad-supported model at Apple. The company has had many chances to acquire profitable ad-supported businesses, and yet it has refrained from doing so, despite having $285 billion in the bank.

The problem is not solely the fact that Facebook's relatively lax data policy gave companies the opportunity to gather data on 87 million people. It's the fact that they didn't even seem to consider this as a possibility--or else were disaffected enough not to care that people's data was being mined without their knowledge.

For ad-supported models to stay profitable and viable, the product--a.k.a. the users--needs to buy in for the long haul. For that to happen, regulation has to--and will--occur. There's no doubt that regulations such as GDPR are needed, not only in the EU but across the pond as well. And there is no doubt that visionaries such as Steve Jobs were ahead of the curve in anticipating the need for user privacy, not only as it relates to regulation but also the impact that it has on consumer trust. Facebook is in the process of learning this lesson, but at a serious cost.

Published on: Apr 23, 2018