Apple’s Long View of Data Privacy: Revisiting Jobs in 2010

Privacy is the hot topic in tech and especially martech and adtech. Every other submission to Street Fight is a meditation on how advertisers will understand their audiences going forward. The focus on privacy comes as private gatekeepers such as Apple and Google and public rule setters in California and Europe make it harder to track internet users — at least without their explicit consent.

Apple is the 700-pound gorilla in the room, commanding privacy attention both for the rules it sets and the branding it has built around the issue. This spring, Apple rolled out App Tracking Transparency. The policy’s most notable component was a notification for iOS device users when they open an app asking whether they want to allow tracking or not. Most users seem to be opting out of tracking, making it harder for advertisers to collect data about user behavior across apps and therefore to target users and measure the effectiveness of ad spend.

It’s easy to take a cynical, short-term view of Apple’s position. Unlike the other Big Tech giants — Google, Facebook, increasingly Amazon, and even Microsoft via LinkedIn — Apple doesn’t have a major ad business. Therefore, an anti-tracking stance offers a relatively painless opportunity for good press and branding differentiation. And it’s true that Apple is in the privacy game for its own financial interest.

But what is the source of that self-interest? I want to suggest that it’s not just a short-sighted opportunity to one-up Facebook and rival smartphone maker Google. Unlike the vast majority of tech companies recently touting new approaches to privacy, Apple isn’t new to the party. Consider these remarks from Steve Jobs at the All Things Digital conference in 2010:

“We’ve always had a very different view of privacy than some of our colleagues in the Valley. We take privacy extremely seriously. As an example, we worry a lot about location in phones. And we worry that some 14-year-old is going to get stalked, and something terrible is going to happen because of our phone. So, as an example, before any app can get location data, we don’t make it a rule that they have to put up a panel and ask because they might not follow that rule. They call our location services, and we put up the panel saying, ‘This app wants to use your location data. Is that okay with you?’ Every time they want to use it. And we do a lot of things like that to ensure that people understand what these apps are doing. … A lot of people in the Valley think we’re really old-fashioned about this.”

Apple’s focus on consent

Jobs zeroes in, years before the current conversation, on what should be the focus of data privacy innovations and policies: clearly getting the user’s consent. Jobs understands that privacy does not mean the end of data-driven business. Rather, it means clearly communicating to users what data will be collected and how it will be used as well as getting the user’s permission. Asking for permission will make it harder to reach some users, yes, but if advertisers want to maintain consensual connections with consumers who actually want to hear from them, there is no other way to do it.

Jobs also understands that consent is not forever and that it has to be obtained in clear and simple language. He extols the importance of asking for consent in “plain English,” not in abstruse legalese or lengthy privacy policies. Furthermore, he stipulates that Apple should repeatedly ask for consent. Apple does not assume that an app asking for location permission one time means it can collect a user’s location data forever. Many companies are still adjusting to that reality.

“Old-fashioned” is the new fashion

It is striking, too, as a piece of Silicon Valley history, that in 2010 Jobs says Apple’s competitors think it “old-fashioned” because the company insists on getting user consent for data collection. In Jobs’ conversation with Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, the interviewers allude to Facebook, whose leaders they say they are particularly keen on asking about privacy. And indeed, at this time, it may have seemed as though Facebook and Google’s surveillance advertising model would dominate the market without contention. To many, privacy seemed a shibboleth; all consumer data belonged to Big Tech, and anyone against that norm was merely a Luddite, smashing individual computers to subvert an inevitable change.

But what may have seemed “old-fashioned” in 2010 is the new fashion. Companies are realizing that privacy is important not only for complying with Big Tech rules and government regulations but also for forging a positive relationship with audiences. Privacy-first practices allow companies to build audiences who actually want their ads. Thus, in a reversal, the old-fashioned stance — respecting whether consumers want to be tracked and asking for permission — is now the cutting edge of data-driven advertising and business intelligence. Facebook’s model won out for some time, but there has been a lot of contestation, and ultimately, it seems Apple’s view will win the day. Data-driven ads will persist, but they will have to persist with user consent.

Why Apple cares about privacy

If Jobs’ vision, as articulated in 2010, is actually reflective of Apple’s continued stance on privacy — and I think it is — Apple isn’t just taking a bold position on privacy because it’s a differentiator in the top ranks of the tech industry. Apple is taking a lead on privacy because it genuinely believes in privacy and consumer consent as a long-term strategy that will allow it to maintain its unusually strong consumer brand and connections with customers.

Here, it is crucial to understand that the customers of Facebook — to name one free-to-use platform dependent on advertising — have never been its users. Facebook’s customers are the advertisers who pay it for the opportunity to target its users. Similarly, while Google has customers in its Android device users, primarily, its customers, too, are the advertisers who want to reach its Android, Chrome, and search users. Accordingly, Facebook and Google’s head-first plunge into surveillance reflects their understanding of who their primary customers are — whom they’re serving and whose needs they primarily need to meet (those of advertisers). As Shoshana Zuboff, the theorist of surveillance capitalism, has argued, we, the average consumers, are neither the customers nor the products of surveillance advertising firms. We are the ground to their oil, the source of the materials through which they develop advertising products to sell to advertisers, their true customers.

Not so with Apple. The company knows who its customers are. It knows they wouldn’t like to be tracked without their knowledge or that they might rebel if a 14-year-old were stalked using iPhone location data. Therefore, Apple has also known, since at least 2010, that privacy is a no-brainer as a guiding principle of its business.

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Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018 and compiled the daily newsletter since 2016. Joe is a journalist who has written widely about technology, business, and politics. You can contact him at jzappa@streetfightmag.com.