In the latest update to the iOS 15 public beta release, Apple discloses its own ad tracking behavior when requesting permission to show targeted advertising to iPhone users. However, the language used in the request is quite different than that used for apps from other developers. The first reaction to the request to show targeted ads might be to exclaim that Apple is not being hypocritical, giving itself the same treatment as everyone else. Upon a closer look, the difference in wording becomes apparent. The request that appears when opening an app from a third-party developer uses the phrase ‘track you across apps and websites,’ providing two buttons labeled ‘Ask App Not to Track‘ and ‘Allow Tracking.’ Apple’s apps use the phrase ‘personalized ads,’ while describing how that ‘helps you‘ and leads with a button to ‘Turn On Personalized Ads,’ which is highlighted in blue, above the button to opt-out, which is labeled ‘Turn Off Personalized Ads.’ This difference has been noted by others as well, including The Verge‘s Alex Heath who recently tweeted about the use of language.
Are Apple’s Ads Different?
Apple’s privacy focus does mean the data shared with Apple should stay within Apple’s ecosystem, but the user is still being tracked. The tracking is simply limited to Apple’s vast empire of products and services. So activity from Safari might inform the ads shown in the App Store and articles read in Apple News could affect which targeted ads are displayed in Apple’s Stocks app. This is how targeted advertising works for third-party apps also. There is a critical difference, however. When a social media app uses data it has collected from the user, it is a much more robust set of personal information than what Apple collects. The user’s personal data can also be shared with other companies for advertising purposes. If the purpose is simply to show more relevant ads, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Seeing products that are personally interesting is actually quite convenient. The more a person’s smart technology knows about them, the more helpful devices can become. The trouble comes when the ‘products’ being advertised are not items but rather ideas or are politically motivated. When advertisers attempt to find the right angle to influence a vote, that might become a lever that works against democracy. This is not meant to imply that Apple doesn’t have its own political motivations, since it would clearly wish for iPhone owners to believe that its hefty 30-percent App Store commission is a good thing and shouldn’t be scrutinized by the government.
The problem with Apple’s approach in requesting permission from the user to show targeted ads is the language used. Personalized ads that help the user sounds so much more appealing than tracking across third-party websites and apps. Even the presentation of the buttons shows some bias. Apple places the authorization button on top and highlights it in blue for its own request, while ad requests from third-party apps show the deny button on top. It is good that Apple has a focus on privacy and even requests permission for its own advertising, but the method it uses should be presented in exactly the same way it does for third-party apps.