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iOS14 and a more private internet.

Written by Tom Lambert

There has been a lot of noise around the incoming iOS14 update and the direct impact that it is likely to have on businesses who advertise on Facebook in particular, but also other ad platforms.

In this post I want to take a step back and place Apple’s decisions around privacy for the upcoming iOS14 update in the context of the industry as a whole. I will be releasing another post which will focus on the tangible impact it will likely have on the day to day of Facebook marketers in particular and how we recommend tackling it, all with a healthy sprinkling of speculation.

But for now, before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s have a look at how the privacy discussion has developed in the context of US big tech firms, leading up to this release by Apple.

Timeline of how privacy rules have developed since 2018
How privacy rules have developed since GDPR

When did it all start?

The most important thing to know is that the move towards a more privacy focussed internet was not started by Apple alone. 

This has been coming for a long time, with browsers such as Firefox, Brave and Tor having cookie tracking and more disabled by default for some time now, as well Safari (which is owned by Apple). 

Search engines which don’t track your browser history, such as DuckDuckGo, are also starting to gain traction, along with private messaging apps such as Telegram and Signal (the latter of which blew up after an Elon Musk tweet recently).

Signal's user growth after Elon Musk's tweet
Image credit: Appfigures

All of this clearly shows that a segment of users really do care about big tech firms gathering their data, particularly when it comes to their personal messages in apps like Whatsapp.

However, the thing that really made the industry sit up and take the idea of a cookie-less future was when Google, who are the largest digital ad platform by some distance and whose advertising tools rely heavily on cookie based conversion tracking, announced that they plan to deprecate cookie tracking on Chrome by 2022. Chrome has an 80% share of the browser market, so this was a very significant announcement.

It’s worth noting in the article that I’ve linked to, written by Google’s Director of Chrome Engineering in January 2020 (way before Apple’s iOS14 announcement), Google have made it clear that they aren’t happy with the current state of user privacy and tracking, but they want to collaborate with the industry in order to find an appropriate solution:

“Users are demanding greater privacy–including transparency, choice and control over how their data is used and it’s clear the web ecosystem needs to evolve to meet these increasing demands. Some browsers have reacted to these concerns by blocking third-party cookies, but we believe this has unintended consequences that can negatively impact both users and the web ecosystem. By undermining the business model of many ad-supported websites, blunt approaches to cookies encourage the use of opaque techniques such as fingerprinting (an invasive workaround to replace cookies), which can actually reduce user privacy and control. We believe that we as a community can, and must, do better.”

Google have recently reiterated their intention to deprecate cookies in the next two years, once they have had the time to work with the wider industry to work out alternative anonymous solutions to cookie based tracking.

While Apple is moving the industry forward in terms of privacy, it seems that the strength of their brand and marketing makes them seem like a much more significant player than perhaps they really are.

Apple’s public stance on privacy (and why it’s misleading…)

Apple has been a very vocal supporter of the progression towards empowering users to take control of how much data they share with advertisers, with them building much of their marketing messaging in recent years around privacy in order to build trust with their customers.

By playing on the lack of understanding in the general public about how personalised advertising actually works and how user data is stored and used by ad platforms, Apple is looking to take advantage of this new status quo to cement their position as a brand that users can trust. 

This helps Apple in two ways:

  1. Apple sees any free services which are supported by ads as a threat to the Apple Ecosystem, often referred to as a “walled-garden”, which users have to pay to be a part of.
     
  2. Much like Google, Facebook and Microsoft, Apple are regularly accused of anti-competitive and monopolistic behaviour, which contradicts Apple’s public image. Building trust with their users is a great PR play to counter this.

Ben Thompson, in his article responding to Apple’s announcement about their new “privacy nutrition labels”, calls out Apple for misleading the public about what being tracked online actually means in their TV ad (watch it here):

“This is truly scandalous, but not for the reason Apple wants you to think it is: the way in which this ad depicts how your information is used — literally broadcasting your web browsing and searches and private conversations to those around you — is so misleading that it is hard to call it anything but misinformation.”

Advertisers who are familiar with the way data is used by the ad platforms to improve how ads are shown to their users all know that there is no way of finding out specific information about a particular individual, with all data encrypted and only able to be used by ad platforms machine learning algorithms.

As Ben states after showing an image of the East German Stasi archives:

“That the files are paper makes them terrifying, because anyone can read them individually; that they are paper, though, also limits their reach. Contrast this to Google or Facebook: that they are digital means they reach everywhere; that, though, means they are read in aggregate, and stored in a way that is only decipherable by machines.”

Much of the concern around the proposed App Tracking Transparency pop up that will be enforced with iOS 14.5 is that it is very difficult to communicate the nuance of how a users data is recorded and used by algorithms in a single sentence. Without the consumer understanding this, the wording of Apple’s pop-up is weighted towards having the user opt out of tracking, which could benefit them in the future, as we will explore later.

East German Stasi Archives
The East German Stasi Archives. Image Credit: Wired Magazine

Apple is known for anti-competitive behaviour

It’s well known that Apple takes advantage of its massive user base on iOS and the App Store to force businesses who monetise their users via in-app purchases to pay their astronomical fees (30%) on all of their mobile revenue.

Epic Games were the first to really take on Apple with a big lawsuit after they were kicked from the App Store for offering direct payments via their website, prompting this quite amusing parody of Apple’s infamous 1984 commercial. Their very public spat with Spotify over the same issue is another. 

However, a lesser known, and arguably more petty, example of Apple using their control of the App Store to stifle competition is when they purged parental control apps listed in the App Store to benefit their own product, Screen Time. 

This had a huge impact on one of our clients, Kidslox. The Kidslox founder, Viktor Yevpak, actually succeeded in filing and winning a lawsuit against them that lasted two years in order to simply list on the App Store again. Even now that they are live again (one of just a handful of parental control apps left in the market), Apple are still restricting developers access to their Privacy API, giving their Screen Time product an unfair advantage over the competition by essentially limiting the features they can build. 

All of this combined shows why Apple would be very keen to ensure that their image in the eyes of the consumer is one of a brand that defends its customers from evil and has their best intentions at heart.

The saying goes that those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones and Facebook’s record is hardly clean in comparison to Apple’s. Facebook and Google have been investigated for anti-competitive practice, with Google being slapped with huge fines by the European Commission last year and Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and Whatsapp under the microscope.

However, it’s important to understand that Apple is just as bad as the rest of the big tech firms for abusing its position of power.

Why the fuss around iOS14 if everyone agrees privacy first is the right approach?

Much of the industry is already on board with improving user privacy and moving away from the reliance on cookie based tracking, but the reason there has been so much objection from Facebook in particular around the upcoming iOS14 announcement is due to the lack of collaboration from Apple to create a solution that works for the industry as it transitions to the new era of anonymous tracking over the next couple of years.

Digital advertising is the lifeblood of the online economy, which in the past 12 months has been the one of the few shining lights in what has been a pretty bleak global economic landscape. Many businesses are reinventing themselves and finding new avenues for growth online, largely enabled by digital ad publishers such as Facebook and Google and by the ease and flexibility of platforms like Shopify, who see their main goal as being to “arm the rebels” against incumbents like Amazon, allowing businesses to take control of their growth online.

Yes, there is the argument that you shouldn’t be relying on paid traffic alone to grow your business, with Facebook and Google ad spend being dubbed a “tax” by many businesses who feel trapped in the cycle of only being able to drive their growth through paid acquisition. However, digital ads should be seen as only one part of your marketing mix which gives you the flexibility and confidence to scale when the market conditions are right and pull back when they aren’t.

So with this context in mind, Apple deciding to significantly change the measurement policies and requirements for apps in the iOS App Store, without collaborating with the major players who drive the eCommerce industry, has a profound impact on virtually every business on the planet which has some kind of revenue coming via the internet, not just those with an app on iOS.

It is fascinating that they have refused to collaborate with the likes of Facebook and Google in building a solution that will both preserve the effectiveness of personalised advertising (which isn’t going to go away any time soon) and improve and protect user privacy on the iOS ecosystem. 

We can only speculate as to why that is, but there are rumours of Apple looking to develop their own search engine for Safari (link behind a paywall), which would make limiting Google’s ability to track conversions for iOS users a serious competitive advantage.Currently, Google pay $8billion+ per year to Apple to be the default search engine for iOS devices. This deal is now under scrutiny by the US Justice Department and, again rumour has it, that this deal hasn’t been renewed for 2021. Whether it is due to the lawsuit from the Justice Department, or because Apple wants to compete with Google in the search engine market, remains to be seen.

So what happens next?

The writing has been on the wall for some time when it comes to cookie based tracking for personalised ads and the iOS14 changes are just forcing the industry as a whole to come up with a better solution sooner than expected. 

However, it’s important to know that Apple isn’t the instigator of this move towards greater privacy, they are using the trend and amplifying it for the benefit of their own advertising offering, with Facebook and other digital ad networks which rely on cookie based tracking as the collateral damage.

Apple ultimately holds all the cards in this situation, unless industry regulators get involved, as they have the power to simply remove any apps which don’t comply with their policies from the App Store, which is a perilous position to be in if, like Facebook, you and the businesses who advertise on your platform rely on iOS users for their revenue.

2021 is shaping up to be a year of significant change to the world of digital marketing. Business owners and marketers need to get the tools in place to effectively measure their marketing mix and get to grips with the nuances of each channel, without having to be over reliant on 3rd party data sources.

I expect to see some significant developments in anonymous cross device conversion tracking in the next 12 months, along with a big push from Facebook and other ad networks such as Tik Tok to build out their commerce functions, more robust server side event tracking through their partnerships with Shopify (who are tipped to benefit the whole situation), and more eCommerce businesses starting to build their own attribution or media mix models.

With every challenge comes an opportunity, the question is whether you can move fast enough to tackle the problem head on and acclimatise to the new normal as fast as possible.

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