Apple’s approach to user privacy: Agreeing with Gruber (and Jobs)

Regarding Facebook’s complaints about Apple’s requirement that app makers get users’ consent to tracking, I think John Gruber has it just right:

Facebook: Free as in Bullshit

It’s an unfortunate quirk of the English language that free as freedom and free as in beer are very different meanings of free. But when you see an ad headlined “Apple vs. The Free Internet”, most people would assume they’re about to hear an argument about free as in freedom.

Not Facebook. They’re arguing about free as in beer.

This may well result in diminishing the effectiveness of personalized advertising. If so, so be it. Facebook’s argument is along the lines of arguing that the police shouldn’t crack down on burglaries because it might hurt pawn shops that have been thriving during a years-long crime spree. The information used for tracking belongs to the users whose behavior and interests is being tracked, not to Facebook and the companies, no matter how small and noble, who advertise with them.

Kara Swisher: ‘Facebook’s Tone-Deaf Attack on Apple’

It’s entirely possible, and I say it’s true, that Apple’s bottom line does not depend on privacy invasion not by happenstance but because the company well and truly believes in privacy as a human right to its core.

Steve Jobs on Privacy

Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain English, and repeatedly. That’s what it means. I’m an optimist, I believe people are smart. And some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data.

That’s what we think.

I’m on board with that. I want my operating system to ask me before apps track what I do. Facebook’s concern is that it knows many of its users do not actually want it to track them in the ways that it has become accustomed to tracking them. I have no sympathy for that.

My devices are supposed to work for me, not for Facebook. If that means Facebook makes less money—if that even means Facebook fails—I do not care. I don’t think Facebook will fail because it has to ask users to track them. But if it does fail, I’m okay with that.

Escaping the Algorithms

It’s been said, in various ways, that if you’re not the customer, you’re the product. Although that’s an oversimplification, and sometimes arguably just wrong, I know I’m not the only one who has sometimes felt like Facebook or Twitter is trying to mess with my mind in order to get me to keep scrolling and notice ads.

Several days ago, I recalled with nostalgia a time 15 or so years ago, before Facebook1 and Twitter–the earliest days of social media. Blogs were still relatively new, LiveJournal2 hadn’t been sold to Russians yet, and our social “echo chambers” hadn’t yet met the amplifying effect of social media feed algorithms. I monitored the blogs and news sites I wanted to follow using a RSS reader like FeedDemon or NetNewsWire.

Then, a few minutes after that moment of nostalgic reflection, the obvious struck me: Those things are all still out there. I still read blog articles. In fact, if I count on Facebook to promote them to me, I probably miss a bunch of articles I’d like to read.

So, I downloaded NetNewsWire, loaded in an old OPML file, culled out the feeds that hadn’t been updated in years, added a few, and soon had a working set of feeds I liked.

One of the default feeds that came with NetNewsWire belonged to Manton Reece, who started is a microblogging system that’s not ad-supported, and its discovery timeline is chronological only–there’s no algorithm trying to figure out what will keep you scrolling and clicking. Of course, that means it’s not free, but I’m giving it a try.

In just a few days, my Facebook time has decreased, and my optimism has increased. And now I’m writing a blog post for the first time in years.

  1. Or at least, before people like me who had already graduated from college could have Facebook accounts. 
  2. Yeah, I had one. It was a good way to stay in touch with college friends pre-Facebook.