Show an ad over header. AMP

Tech's deepening split over ads and privacy

A new fight between Facebook and Apple over the mechanics of ad tech is surfacing an industry divide over user privacy and spotlighting longstanding dilemmas about the tracking and use of personal information online.

Why it matters: Privacy advocates have been sounding alarms for years about tech firms' expansive, sometimes inescapable data harvesting without making much headway in the U.S. But the game could change if major industry players start taking opposite sides.

What's happening: Facebook warned advertisers Wednesday that a coming change to Apple's iOS could devastate revenue for ads that sends users straight to the App Store to install an app — an approach that's used widely by developers including mobile game makers.

  • Apple has pitched the change, aimed at giving users clearer choices over who is allowed to track them across different apps, as a bid to better protect iPhone users' privacy.

Meanwhile, Palantir CEO Alex Karp pilloried Big Tech in a letter to investors included in his company's Tuesday filing to go public.

  • Writing that Palantir shares "fewer and fewer of the technology sector's values and commitments," Karp suggested that collecting data to target advertising is morally and ethically inferior to Palantir’s use of data to support U.S. military and government functions.

Reality check: Self-interest is at work here on all sides.

  • Apple has for some time made privacy a key part of its pitch to consumers (even though it does know plenty about its users). With every major tech company now under greater regulatory scrutiny over alleged monopolistic practices, Apple wants to play to its strength. And Apple gets only a tiny fraction of its revenue from ads, while key rivals get most of their revenue that way.
  • Facebook, for its part, is looking to make itself the friend of smaller developers, just as it's doing with small businesses in another fight with Apple over App Store commissions.
  • Palantir competes with firms its CEO implicitly criticized, like Google and Amazon, for the government contracts that are the core of its business.

Our thought bubble: Silicon Valley's businesses are all so intertwined and interdependent that it's hard to know what's really at stake in this kind of conflict and how serious the parties are.

  • Case in point: Palantir's chairman, Peter Thiel, is a longstanding member of Facebook's board.
  • Yes, but: Companies' motivations don't matter if the battles bring the issue to center stage.

The big picture: Both these conflicts — Facebook vs. Apple and Palantir vs. the rest of the industry —point to the dilemma underlying Silicon Valley's free, ad-supported business model.

  • People love not paying for services they depend on, like search and social networking.
  • But they're often uncomfortable when they realize how much data about them is being tracked and stored.
  • Rarely do they act on that discomfort, however.

The catch: While users and policymakers can make changes at the edges, it's not clear user actions or government remedies can fundamentally change the business model at the root of the problem.

  • Policymakers looking to put tighter controls on privacy practices have come up with answers like Europe's GDPR or California's CCPA. Those largely amount to requiring tech companies to be more transparent about data collection and to highlight tools they mostly already offered that let users download and delete their data.
  • Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang proposed a "data dividend" that would place a dollar value on people's data and return it to them through a tax on tech companies. Such ideas reach farther than existing regulations but remain speculative and fraught with practical questions.
  • More narrowly targeted legislation in various forms remains stalled in Congress.

What to watch: Twitter is mulling a paid subscription option, but it's unclear how it will fare in testing and unlikely to ever replace ads.

  • Facebook and Google have both done so fantastically well with their existing models that it's hard to imagine them taking this road.

Trump agency head who often skips mask tests positive for coronavirus

The acting administrator of the United States Agency for International Development informed senior staff Wednesday he has tested positive for coronavirus, two sources familiar with the call tell Axios.

Why it matters: John Barsa, who staffers say rarely wears a mask in their office, is the latest in a series of top administration officials to contract the virus. His positive diagnosis comes amid broader turmoil at the agency following the election.

Keep reading... Show less

COVID-19 shows a bright future for vaccines

Promising results from COVID-19 vaccine trials offer hope not just that the pandemic could be ended sooner than expected, but that medicine itself may have a powerful new weapon.

Why it matters: Vaccines are, in the words of one expert, "the single most life-saving innovation ever," but progress had slowed in recent years. New gene-based technology that sped the arrival of the COVID vaccine will boost the overall field, and could even extend to mass killers like cancer.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware a Thanksgiving mirage

Don't be surprised if COVID metrics plunge over the next few days, only to spike next week.

Why it matters: The COVID Tracking Project warns of a "double-weekend pattern" on Thanksgiving — where the usual weekend backlog of data is tacked on to a holiday.

Keep reading... Show less

Trump pardons Michael Flynn

President Trump on Wednesday pardoned his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI about his Russian contacts.

Why it matters: It is the first of multiple pardons expected in the coming weeks, as Axios scooped last night.

This is a breaking story and will be updated with more details.

The emerging cybersecurity headaches awaiting Biden

The incoming administration will face a slew of cybersecurity-related challenges, as Joe Biden takes office under a very different environment than existed when he was last in the White House as vice president.

The big picture: President-elect Biden's top cybersecurity and national security advisers will have to wrestle with the ascendancy of new adversaries and cyberpowers, as well as figure out whether to continue the more aggressive stance the Trump administration has taken in cyberspace.

Keep reading... Show less

Past friction between Biden and Erdoğan foreshadows future tensions

Ankara — The incoming Biden administration's foreign policy priorities and worldview will collide with those of the Turkish government on several issues.

Why it matters: The U.S. needs its NATO ally Turkey for its efforts to contain Russia, counter Iran and deal with other crises in the Middle East. But relations between Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are expected to be strained.

Keep reading... Show less

Tesla's wild rise and European plan

Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

Tesla's market capitalization blew past $500 billion for the first time Tuesday.

Why it matters: It's just a number, but kind of a wild one. Consider, via CNN: "Tesla is now worth more than the combined market value of most of the world's major automakers: Toyota, Volkswagen, GM, Ford, Fiat Chrysler and its merger partner PSA Group."

Keep reading... Show less

China's Xi Jinping congratulates Biden on election win

Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a message to President-elect Biden on Wednesday to congratulate him on his election victory, according to the Xinhua state news agency.

Why it matters: China's foreign ministry offered Biden a belated, and tentative, congratulations on Nov. 13, but Xi had not personally acknowledged Biden's win. The leaders of Brazil, Mexico and Russia are among the very few leaders still declining to congratulate Biden.

This story is breaking news. Please check back for updates.



Get Goodhumans in your inbox

Most Read

More Stories