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Wednesday, Sep 22, 2021

With 9 Words, Tim Cook Just Explained the Biggest Problem With Facebook

With 9 Words, Tim Cook Just Explained the Biggest Problem With Facebook

It's about the paradox of privacy and digital technology.

It's really not a secret at all that Apple and Facebook aren't friends. They aren't even all that friendly of enemies. Sure, they're mostly polite, but there's no mistaking the degree to which there is hostility between the two companies.

It's sort of a strange position for two companies that arguably depend on each other in some unusual ways. For example, Facebook certainly depends on the iPhone considering that mobile represents 98 percent of the social platform's usage. Sure, a good portion of that comes from Android devices, but in the U.S. at least, the iPhone is probably Facebook's most important platform.

Of course, Facebook is also important to the iPhone. If suddenly you couldn't use Facebook's apps, that would be bad for Apple considering that people genuinely like using Facebook, despite its problems. Many of those people would switch to something else if they couldn't use it on their iPhone.

Still, the two companies can't seem to resist the urge to take shots at each other every chance they get. For example, Facebook took out full-page ads decrying Apple's decision to require developers to request permission before tracking users across apps and websites. That's a big deal to Facebook considering its business is largely based on doing just that.

Tim Cook responded that he isn't "focused on Facebook at all." Which, as I wrote at the time, is both brilliant and brutal in its dismissal of the company.

More recently, Facebook threw shade at Apple over the latter company's announcement that it was implementing a change in future versions of iOS in order to detect CSAM images uploaded to iCloud Photos. Will Cathcart, the CEO of WhatsApp (which is owned by Facebook) said that Apple's decision represented a surveillance state and was the wrong approach.

We'll set aside, for a moment, the fact that Facebook is widely considered the worst privacy offender in a tech industry that can't resist monetizing user data at every opportunity. The bigger point is that--considering how much emphasis Apple puts on privacy--Facebook saw a chance to hit the company where it hurts most.

Now, Cook has another response, this time in an interview with The Australian Financial Review about tech companies and privacy:

Technology doesn't want to be good. It doesn't want to be bad, it's neutral. And so it's in the hands of the inventor and the user as to whether it's used for good, or not used for good...The risk of not doing that means that technology loses touch with the user. And in that kind of case, privacy can become collateral damage. Conspiracy theories or hate speech begins to drown everything else out. Technology will only work if it has people's trust.


That last part is important--those nine words about how "technology will only work if it has people's trust." That's as clear an explanation of what's wrong with Facebook as I've heard yet. And, while Cook doesn't specifically mention Facebook, the part about "conspiracy theories or hate speech," makes it pretty clear who he's referring to.

The point seems to be that tech companies, specifically Facebook, are focused on building features and products, without regard for the impact they have on user privacy. It's not hard to see how that is true. Facebook has reportedly been working on ways to analyze encrypted messages for the purpose of targeting ads at WhatsApp users--something it hasn't been able to do so far.

The company has also gone out of its way to defend its use of tracking user data as the key to the free and open internet, and crucial to small businesses. Even if those things are true, it really just makes Cook's point, which is that "privacy can become collateral damage." If your business model depends on gathering up and monetizing as much data from your users as possible, it's pretty hard to also protect their privacy.

It is also worth mentioning that Apple is facing its own criticism over how it handles user privacy right now. Of course, much of that pushback is related to the fact that Apple has long been a champion of protecting personal data, and its decision to include technology on the iPhone that can "scan" your photos for CSAM, feels like a shift in that promise.

It makes sense that Apple would want to shift the focus back to what it considers far worse privacy offenders while reminding everyone of its own privacy bona fides. Of course, the reason that matters is the reason Cook mentions: trust. Sometimes it seems like there is a huge disconnect between the way Facebook sees its role in the world, and the way the rest of us see it. It's hard to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt if you don't trust that it has your best interests in mind.

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