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Apple took another swipe at Facebook

Apple wants to stop tech companies — like Facebook — from collecting user browsing data without their permission.

Apple SVP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi
Apple SVP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi
Justin Sullivan / Getty

Apple took another swipe at Facebook and its data practices Monday when it rolled out an update to the Safari browser that would limit the amount of data Facebook and other tech giants can collect from third-party websites.

“We’ve all seen these, these ‘Like’ buttons and share buttons,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s SVP of software, at the company’s annual WWDC developer conference. “It turns out these can be used to track you whether you click on them or not. So this year, we’re shutting that down,” Federighi added, eliciting applause from the audience.

That jab was the latest critique of the social network, which has already taken hits from consumer and privacy advocates, key members of both parties in the U.S. Congress and European lawmakers.

But Apple, as the most valuable company in the world, whose devices are used by hundreds of millions of consumers, turned data collection into an ideological turf war with its latest software update.

Apple wants to cut off Facebook, Google and others from collecting your browsing data without your permission.

Facebook is perhaps the most famous collector of this kind of data, at least right now. The company offers what it calls “social plugins,” or APIs that website creators can add to their page that collect data from visitors and send it back to Facebook.

Facebook says it collects this info for a number of reasons, including security purposes, but its most valuable use case is that it helps Facebook target people with ads. If the company knows what websites you’ve visited and what products you’ve looked at, it can show you very specific ads that re-promote those websites or products.

Federighi said Monday that with the new Safari browser, if an “app” tries to get information from people through these methods, it will trigger a popup where users can “decide to keep their information private.”

It’s not clear if the pop-up will apply to Safari’s web and mobile versions. Third-party data firm StatCounter puts Safari’s global market share at just under 14 percent.

It’s not entirely clear from the demo how this blocking mechanism will work or if it will apply to all third-party integrations and not just Facebook. We’ve asked Apple for comment, and we’ve also asked Facebook for comment.

But setting aside the technology for a second, it’s clear that Apple is trying to play the role of “nice guy” here at Facebook’s expense. Apple is, after all, not an advertising business, so limiting the amount of data that other tech companies can collect — or even just talking about limiting the amount of data other tech companies can collect — puts Apple in a position where it appears to be looking out for the internet’s little guys.

It wasn’t the only product feature Apple unveiled Monday that could hurt Facebook. The company also announced “Screen Time,” which let users set a time limit for using an app in a day, then send them a notification when they are approaching that limit.

The app that Apple used for a demo when showing off the new feature? Instagram.

People buying into the idea of an internet diet — where they consciously limit their use of apps each day — could be even worse for Facebook than Apple’s data-sharing blockers. Less time spent on Facebook or Instagram means fewer ads seen. That’s a direct threat to Facebook’s business, which is almost entirely dependent on advertising.

Monday was not the first time Apple has swiped at Facebook since the company’s Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal. When Recode’s Kara Swisher asked Apple CEO Tim Cook back in March what he would do if he were in Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s shoes, Cook replied, “I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

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