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Big Tech goes to war over privacy rights

Is privacy a human right? As Apple and Facebook trade furious blows over privacy rights, many argue that neither of these corporate giants should enjoy so much control of our personal data. Apple CEO Tim Cook did not mince his words. “If a business is built on misleading users, on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform.” In a speech on online advertising two weeks ago, his target was another Big Tech titan, Facebook. The two companies are waging a furious war of words: recently Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, accused Apple of launching an “attack on the free internet”. What brought these two giants to the brink was a simple tweak in Apple’s privacy policy. When iOS 14.5 is released this month, it will have a new feature: a pop-up will appear on each app to ask the user’s permission to collect data on their activities. It might seem like a small change, but it has big implications for other tech giants. Facebook, Google and Twitter make almost all their revenue from advertising, in the form of sponsored posts on their sites. Advertisers will pay more for posts if they can be sure that users will click on them. This has led to the development of targeted advertising. Big tech companies build up a profile of their users’ interests and use these to show them adverts that are certain to appeal to them. But to do this, they have to harvest a huge amount of personal data, often without users’ consent. Some people argue that this is a violation of privacy. Offered the opportunity to choose whether to share their information with Facebook, many would prefer not to. That means Facebook may make less money from its advertising. Many have suggested that Facebook is opposing Apple’s new policy out of self-interest. But Facebook insists the issue is bigger than this. It claims that Apple’s privacy changes could change the face of the internet. Right now, the majority of websites are free to use because they host adverts. If these adverts cannot be targeted at users, Facebook says, they will be worth less, and more websites may have to start charging a subscription to make ends meet. Some think Apple is being hypocritical. It is interested in guaranteeing its users’ privacy: both because it makes Apple devices more appealing and knocks out competitors that rely on data-harvesting. They claim that Apple has itself been very happy to violate users’ privacy. It invented the “Unique Device Identifier”, or UDID, which allowed it to trace a particular device as it moved from webpage to webpage. In 2012, after a dispute with Google, Apple suddenly banned apps from using their UDIDs. Since then, Apple has made privacy central to its brand. Some think that Apple is cynically using privacy concerns as a way of damaging its competitors. That is why some people argue that we need firmer protections for our privacy. Philosopher Shoshana Zuboff argues that we need strong legal safeguards on our personal information: a right to privacy. Is privacy a human right? Private citizen Yes, say some. Big tech companies should not have the right to seize our data and use it however they like. If a government collected as much individual data as Facebook and Google, it would be regarded as surveillance and a violation of our human rights. We can only protect our privacy from tech giants by enshrining it as a right. Not at all, say others. The collection of our data by tech companies is really a kind of exchange. We trade away our private information in exchange for free access to websites. If the price of privacy were an end to the free web, people would not be willing to pay it. Making privacy a right might be well-meaning, but it ignores the economic realities of the internet age. KeywordsTitan - A family of giants in Greek mythology, used today to describe a person or thing that is very strong or important.

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