Is Apple’s New Privacy Feature Anti-Competitive, Hyper-Competitive, or Somehow Both?

Craig Federighi talks data. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

At its developer conference yesterday, Apple introduced a new feature that would allow it to compete with Google and Facebook in terms of online ubiquity. Just as most mainstream web services allow users to sign in using their Google or Facebook accounts, Apple introduced a feature called “Sign In with Apple.” Unlike the other two, Apple senior VP Craig Federighi promised that Apple’s version was privacy focused.

Google and Facebook’s options are in effect data-sharing agreements between them and the services that deploy their sign-in methods. In exchange for Google and Facebook handling complicated, high-stakes things like log-in security, Google and Facebook get privileged access and can see additional user activity across the web. The sites you use these sign-in methods on can also request access to data on your Google and Facebook profiles as well. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that makes tracking, and ad-targeting, much easier.

Apple’s login system, on the other hand, pledges to only share a users name and email address with anyone who utilizes their sign-in option, and promises that it “will not track users’ activity in [a developer’s] app or website.” In addition, if you choose, Apple will mask your email address with a randomly generated forwarding address of its own. Masking a user’s real email address makes it more difficult to tie that user to other databases. It’s akin to calling from a burner phone.

It’s a compelling idea for a populace increasingly concerned about privacy and Big Data. The only problem is that Facebook and Google’s sign-in systems are compelling because they let independent developers hook into huge data sets, but Apple’s does the exact opposite. So, how do you get developers to use it? The answer is: you force them.

In an update to the company’s App Store review guidelines posted yesterday, Apple noted:

Sign In with Apple will be available for beta testing this summer. It will be required as an option for users in apps that support third-party sign-in when it is commercially available later this year.

Put differently: if you use Facebook or Google’s login methods, you also have to offer Apple’s. The service will also be available in web browsers, in addition to iOS apps.

Whether this is good or bad depends on your priorities. If you care about privacy, this is pretty cool. You no longer have to grant access to the accounts that govern much of your digital life to snooping developers or data-reliant giants. And you’re guaranteed to have that option because Apple demands it.

At the same time, well, Apple is demanding it. It’s using its walled garden to force developers to adopt this first-party login method, essentially letting Apple take the place of Google or Facebook as an administrator of your data. The primary advantage of Apple’s login system right now is not that it makes Apple much stronger; it makes Apple’s competitors weaker, by depriving them of crucial user data.

This “If Google/Facebook, then Apple” policy weakens Google and Facebook’s ability to harvest data. That’s good! But Apple is able to do this by leveraging its enormous platform with hundreds of millions of users and forcing developers to use Apple’s own tools. That’s bad. As is often the case with these sorts of Big Tech issues, the benefit to individual users is obvious while the broader implications point to a increasing concentration of power. Even without harvesting data like Facebook and Google, Apple becoming the de facto provider of foundational services for countless other websites and companies is powerful and lucrative place to be.

It’s difficult to game out exactly what this will lead to in the future but it gives Apple a lot of potential avenues. It makes it even harder for developers to abandon Apple’s storefront. Maybe Apple starts charging developers for the ability to use its sign-in services, or maybe the company does an about face and decides it will start collecting more types of user data for monetization. Apple isn’t in dire straits financially, so these are all far-fetched ideas, but at the same time, altruism is not Apple’s primary guiding principle. The company scaling up another large platform that it demands developers proliferate and which it could easily leverage later on should be eyed with some skepticism.

At the same time Apple was holding its keynote yesterday, Reuters reported that the Justice Department is looking at Apple in regard to anti-competitive practices. Facebook, Google, and Amazon are also reportedly under federal scrutiny.

Last year, Apple’s Tim Cook publicly endorsed Congress enacting federal privacy regulations akin to Europe’s GDPR — regulations that would burden Google and Facebook much more than they would be a burden to Apple, which is not in the data-harvesting business. In the meantime, Apple is taking matters into its own hands.

Is Apple’s New Privacy Feature Anti-Competitive?