Big Tech goes to war over privacy rights

Clash of the Titans: the CEOs of Apple and Facebook have been at each other’s throats.

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.

You Decide

  1. Who should decide what is and is not a human right?
  2. Are human rights an effective way of protecting people from harm?

Activities

  1. Write a ballad about the epic struggle between the two giants, Facebook and Apple.
  2. You are going to conduct a mock trial to decide whether Tim Cook or Mark Zuckerberg is in the right. Choose two people to represent Cook and Zuckerberg, one person to be the judge, everyone else should act as a jury.

Some People Say...

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.”

Gabriel García Márquez (1927 - 2014), Colombian novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that governments have struggled to regulate Big Tech. The business plans of tech companies are technical and confusing, and it is difficult to regulate what you do not understand. Tech companies, especially Google and Microsoft, have also poured money into lobbying governments to avoid strict regulation. However, some governments are starting to catch up: for example, Australia and the EU are making plans to force online platforms to pay for the news they feature.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over what “privacy” really means in the modern age. Psychologist B F Skinner argued that concepts like “privacy” and “liberty” are outdated in the information era: the more our knowledge grows, the more it becomes obvious that everything we do is predictable. If we already know every action that a person will take, ideas like “free will” and “privacy” become meaningless. But others argue that these concepts are central to who we are, and we cannot discard them.

Word Watch

Tim Cook
Cook took over the leadership of Apple from founder Steve Jobs shortly before the latter’s death in 2011.
Mince his words
If someone does not mince their words, they are speaking in a forceful and direct way.
Titan
A term for anything that is huge and powerful. It was the name given to a race of ancient Greek gods that was overthrown by the Olympians.
Mark Zuckerberg
Zuckerberg originally founded Facebook as a way of connecting students from elite universities in the USA, and subsequently the UK and Europe. Within two years, it had been rolled out to anyone over 13 years old.
Targeted advertising
A form of advertising that is directed at particular people. Previously, adverts would be targeted at whole demographics: women, young people and so on. However, mass data collection in the digital age allows them to be aimed at specific individuals.
Harvest
Tech companies can collect all kinds of data: the websites you visit, the times you are online and offline, even some of the messages you send and how long your cursor hovers over a link before clicking on it.
Shoshana Zuboff
An American philosopher at Harvard University who has studied the digital age for more than four decades.
Surveillance
Systematic monitoring of people’s actions. Philosopher Michel Foucault argued that surveillance is a form of control, because it causes people to change their behaviour. Government surveillance is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes.

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