With Contrasting Approaches, Facebook and Google Take on Apple’s Privacy Labels

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Apple’s App Store privacy labels have caused quite a storm. Since going live in December 2020, the labels have become a bone of contention, primarily between Facebook and Apple. But, as with all things Apple, developers had to yield. 

Since going live, thousands of developers have updated their apps to include information they take from users. Facebook’s rather public battle, and subsequent fallout is a good lesson in how not to deal with such a situation. Instead, developers should look at Google’s measured approach. 

But before we dive into that, here’s a quick look at what all the fuss is about.

What are Privacy Labels?

In a bid to increase transparency, Apple introduced privacy labels to its iOS, macOS, tvOS, and WatchOS App Stores with its latest software updates. Under the “App Privacy” tab in each app, users can see all the data a particular app collects about them. 

This data is sorted into three categories – Data Linked to You, Data Used to Track You and Data Not Linked to You. There are two more categories as well: No Data Collected and No Information Available. 

Notability App Privacy Label
The app privacy information for Notability from the macOS App Store.

The data will be self reported by developers, which Apple will vet. This is very similar to the way the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandates nutrition data be displayed. In fact, at the WWDC20 keynote, Apple’s Director of User Privacy Erik Neuenschwander stated that Apple was inspired by the FDA.

Apple also provides privacy labels for its own apps, which has been a major talking point of late. 

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Facebook Shows What Not to Do

In a very public battle with Apple, Facebook decided it didn’t want to use the privacy labels. In mid-December, the company took out a full-page ad in major US papers including the Wall Street Journal complaining about Apple’s move. The irony aside, the move made headlines for Facebook saying it would affect small businesses. 

In a rather unusual move, Apple CEO Tim Cook decided to enter the fight. Responding to Facebook’s 185-word ad, the CEO tweeted:

Checkmate Mark. Red faced, the company had no other move left other than to cede. Following the launch of iOS 14.3 in December, the company has been updating its large family of apps to reflect the new privacy labels.

We could go on and tell you every little thing the company tracks, but we’d rather not. 9to5Mac made a very simple graphic to sum it up. 

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App Privacy Labels
A graphic showing all the data Signal, iMessage, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger ask for. Source: 9to5Mac

You don’t even have to read all the points to note just how much data you are giving Facebook. Even WhatsApp is collecting a vast amount of data, reflected in a new pop up that many users saw on Wednesday. 

WhatsApp Update
A popup began appearing for WhatsApp users with a new privacy policy.

Google Takes it Slow With Privacy Labels

Facebook has, is and will face a massive fallout for its data practices, of that there is no doubt. Which is why we need to give Google a lot of credit. Like Facebook, the company is in the business of buying and selling data. But unlike Facebook, it has not rushed to reflect the new privacy labels.

Since Apple requires the privacy labels to be reflected with app updates post December 8 2020, Google has simply refrained from doing so. Of course, it’s not a stand against the labels. A Google spokesperson told TechCrunch that the company was indeed planning to add support for privacy labels over the coming weeks. 

Like other large tech companies Google avoids rolling out updates over the Christmas holidays so avoid major issues when most of its staff are on leave. That said, there does seem to be a bit of a coincidence here.

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Google Privacy label
In contrast to Facebook, Google is yet to update its apps and support privacy labels.

Interestingly, the company did rollout updates for Google Slides and Socratic on December 14 and 15 respectively. However, both apps do not feature any privacy labels. It’s likely that Google got away with the updates since Apple’s App Store was closed for the holidays between December 23 and 27. Even then, it is suspicious that Apple let Google get around a policy its been quite strict about.

Is the company really stalling on privacy labels or just following its routine? It could be a bit of both. While Google has so far avoided a public spat with Apple, the company can clearly learn from Facebook’s mistakes. Google cannot avoid any bad press right now, especially as it is already under the scanner by the US Congress for its business practices. 

So rather than jump headfirst, Google seems to be analysing the best way to add privacy labels without the backlash. Of course, it’s not like people will suddenly abandon Facebook and Google’s products. The two companies represent a huge gateway to the internet that cannot be ignored. But, bad press could make them easier targets.

Hopefully, the company finds a way to reflect the vast data it collects, without invoking Twitter wrath. With the Democrats now in control of the House, Senate and Presidency, the last thing Google wants to do is push the government to break it up, or change its business model. 

That could very much be a reality if the new Alphabet Workers Union has its way. Interesting times are ahead for big tech either way. Could we see the end of the data economy? It’s unlikely but possible. 

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