Apple CEO Tim Cook upped the ante Tuesday in his company's long running feud with Facebook by defending Apple’s anti-tracking privacy update, which the social media giant recently called out as a challenge to its own earnings.
During The New York Times DealBook Summit, Cook spoke in support of an Apple feature that requires apps to ask users for permission before tracking them across platforms. Facebook, along with other tech companies, have cited the anti-tracking feature as a roadblock for their businesses.
“I don't know about estimates, I can't testify to those kind of numbers, but I think that from our point of view privacy is a basic human right and the people that ought to be deciding whether their data shared is the person themselves,” Cook said during an interview kicking off the summit.
The Financial Times last week reported that the Apple update caused an estimated nearly $10 billion of revenue loss in the second half of the year for Snap, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
The feature was rolled out in April after delays. Facebook, which thrives off revenue from targeted ads, fiercely pushed back on the planned update, arguing in an ad campaign that it would hurt small businesses.
But Cook continued to tout the update, saying it gives users control over their own data.
“What we've been all about is putting the power with the user. We’re not making the decision, we're just simply prompting them to be asked if they want to be tracked across apps or not. And, of course, many of them are deciding no, and never wanted to be — it’s just that they didn't have a choice before,” Cook said.
During a third quarter earnings call at the end of October, Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg said the company had experienced the challenges from the Apple update that it had warned it — and others — would.
“We started to see that impact in Q2, but adoption on the consumer side ramped up by late June, so it hit critical mass in Q3. As a result, we’ve encountered two challenges. One is that the accuracy of our ads targeting decreased, which increased the cost of driving outcomes for our advertisers. And the other is that measuring those outcomes became more difficult,” Sandberg said.
Snap’s chief business officer, Jeremi Gorman, also called out the update in an earnings call last month.
“We are continuing to work through the ongoing changes to digital advertising driven by Apple's App Tracking Transparency framework, which was introduced as part of iOS 14.5,” Gorman said.
Asked whether he personally chooses to opt out of tracking, Cook said it depends on “the trust of the developer,” without detailing which companies he thinks are more trustworthy.
“I'm not sure you really know definitively but you have a feel, and I think the companies that are more trusted are likely getting very different results than those that are not trusted,” Cook said.
Facebook is facing increased scrutiny in recent weeks after the release of leaked documents from company whistleblower Frances Haugen that in part detailed internal research about the company’s impact on teen mental health. Facebook, now under the parent name Meta, has pushed back on reporting about the leaked documents, arguing it mischaracterizes the research.
Nonetheless, the reports have spurred lawmakers and activists to ramp up pressure on social media companies, especially in relation to their impact on kids and teens.
Asked about his reaction to the backlash against Facebook, specifically surrounding the effect on teens, Cook said all companies should be working to make products that “help” mental health, not harm it.
“I think mental health is one of the most important topics of the time. I think it's been taboo for for so long, it hasn't been out where people felt free to talk about it and I think it deserves great research and study and that all of us should care about making products that help people's mental health, not not play against that,” he said.
But he stopped short of indicating Apple would look to ban or remove social media platforms such as Facebook or Instagram for such reasons.
“It makes me rethink about the tools that we're providing and to make sure that we're providing great tools for people. Ultimately, I think it's the person's choice,” Cook said.