by Jeremy M. Ben-David, Managing Partner, JMB Davis Ben-David

 

So is Facebook really and justifiably upset with Apple, or has Apple merely done for advertisers what Tesla should have done for its cars? And does Tesla need to stop?

OK, this probably sounds like I have just totally mixed up my cars, smartphones and social media…. but let me assure you that this is not the case. During the past few days, two stories on the technology section of the BBC website caught my eye. One of the stories, entitled Tesla: Elon Musk suggests Autopilot not to blame for fatal crash, was concerning a question as to whether Tesla’s Autopilot was implicated in a fatal car crash  in which two back seat passengers were killed in a Tesla car which apparently had no human driver at the time. This is not as sinister as it sounds. It seems that there are those who know how to use the Tesla Autopilot, which is no more than a driver assist system, as more of a driverless car feature, tempting people to put themselves completely at the mercy of a system that was never intended to be autonomous  and thus driverless. 

Meanwhile, hot on the heels of that story, was another one, entitled Facebook v Apple: The ad tracking row heats up, about the ongoing feud between Apple and Facebook. What’s the problem? Advertising. More to the point, the IDFA (identifier for advertisers), a feature in the Apple phone operating system that allows advertisers to track users across their internet usage, so as to allow targeted advertising and higher sales. In case you’re wondering about the stakes in this story, see Facebook’s revenue from advertising, which apparently rose from $764 million in 2009 to $84 billion in 2020(!)

But still, what’s the issue? 

I’ll tell you. Choice. 

You see, until now, to their shame, Apple’s operating system had the IDFA switched on by default, banking on the fact that most users would be unaware that this feature even existed, let alone that they could disable it Most smartphone users in the world live with the fact that we benefit from the vast wealth of information, sales and other offerings that the internet has to offer, and we don’t even pay attention to things for which our permission should be required. For example, do we really want advertisers to be able to follow us, learn about our interests, and use that information to try and sell us products and services that we may not need but which we will have a high likelihood of buying? If you ask anyone in the cold light of day, so to speak, most people will probably want to be given a choice. But until today, Apple users have not been asked the question. All to the benefit of the advertisers generally and – you guessed it – to the benefit of Facebook specifically.

However, the new iOS 14.5 operating system will remove that choice – as to whether to track a user – from the app developer (e.g. FB), and give it to the user. That sounds like a positive step. And Facebook doesn’t like it one bit. It sounds like an admission that they know that most users (apparently about 80%) would refuse permission. Stop and think about that for a moment, and it’s impact on FB’s bottom line.

Coming back to Tesla now, this story too, if correct as reported, is also about the choices of users. The company has provided a car with a driver assistance system that can allegedly be completely circumvented, so that even if they are not actively inducing users to drive the car without a driver, the question has arisen as to whether they are facilitating such dangerous use by not preventing it. 

But wait a second. This sounds confusing, doesn’t it?

In the case of Apple phones, giving a user control sounds like a good thing, so why, when Tesla does it, does it sound like such a bad thing?

Here’s why. Giving freedom to an unskilled user of a dangerous implement can be tantamount to endangering them. However, taking away the freedom of someone as to the use of their time and money sounds like taking advantage of an unsuspecting victim. 

So it’s not necessarily a question as to whether choice is a good thing or a bad thing, per se. Life is precious, and our time and possessions are finite and ours by right. No one has the right to endanger any of these. That’s all there is to it. 

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