Apple comes out swinging against Facebook over data privacy

In thinly veiled jabs, Apple CEO Tim Cook lays into the social network over "data exploitation."

Rae Hodge Former senior editor
Rae Hodge was a senior editor at CNET. She led CNET's coverage of privacy and cybersecurity tools from July 2019 to January 2023. As a data-driven investigative journalist on the software and services team, she reviewed VPNs, password managers, antivirus software, anti-surveillance methods and ethics in tech. Prior to joining CNET in 2019, Rae spent nearly a decade covering politics and protests for the AP, NPR, the BBC and other local and international outlets.
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Tim Cook on Facebook data privacy
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Tim Cook on Facebook data privacy

On Thursday, Apple CEO Tim Cook appeared on an international Data Privacy Day panel to tout Apple's latest privacy features and assail social media companies like Facebook over privacy flaws. 

James Martin/CNET

Apple CEO Tim Cook used an appearance on a virtual International Data Privacy Day panel Thursday to attack Facebook in a series of thinly veiled jabs and to call for global data privacy reforms. Cook's remarks followed reports appearing earlier in the day that the social media giant has been preparing an antitrust lawsuit against Apple over the iPhone maker's privacy policy updates, potentially marking a significant escalation in a long-simmering feud between the two tech titans.  

"If a business is built on misleading users, on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, then it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform," Cook said in one notable reference to Facebook. "A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe."

Cook's appearance on the panel comes just ahead of Apple's privacy policy change rollout for iOS 14 apps , and a day after Google announced its apps will comply with the new mandates. Under Apple's new policy, apps featured in the App Store will be required to notify the user if they use the advertiser tracking tech known as IDFA, and to ask for user consent. 

During the panel, Cook issued a series of calls for greater consumer privacy protections and wider industry reforms. He touted the Apple policy, known as App Tracking Transparency, and other new transparency measures from the company.

"The first is a simple but revolutionary idea that we call the privacy nutrition label. Every app — including our own — must share their data collection and privacy practices, information that the App Store presents in a way every user can understand and act on," Cook said, in a nod toward accusations from Facebook that Apple's own apps are not required to play by its privacy rules. 

Cook said Apple users have long asked for features like App Tracking Transparency, and Apple has worked closely with developers to give them time to implement the transparency feature as the company continues to shift toward reduced data collection overall, a move Cook says requires global and industrywide reform. 

"Right now, users may not know whether the apps they use to pass the time, to check in with their friends, or to find a place to eat may in fact be passing on information about the photos they've taken, the people in their contact list or location data that reflects where they eat, sleep or pray," he said. "When ATT is in full effect, users will have a say over this kind of tracking."

See also: Browser-based VPNs: 3 to try if you want to improve online privacy

Cook laid into Facebook in all but name, accusing it of manipulating public news consumption and exploiting user data collection in order to serve hyper-targeted ads while simultaneously fueling political polarization and the spread of misinformation. 

"What are the consequences," he asked, "of prioritizing conspiracy theories and violent incitement simply because of their high rates of engagement? What are the consequences of not just tolerating, but rewarding content that undermines public trust in life-saving vaccinations? What are the consequences of seeing thousands of users join extremist groups?"

Although it didn't confirm whether the company was preparing an antitrust lawsuit against Apple, Facebook pushed back against Cook's remarks in an email to CNET. 

"As we have said repeatedly, we believe Apple is behaving anti-competitively by using their control of the App Store to benefit their bottom line at the expense of app developers and small businesses," said a Facebook spokesperson. 

The response echoed comments made by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the company's Wednesday earnings call.

"Apple has every incentive to use their dominant platform position to interfere with how our apps and other apps work, which they regularly do to preference their own."